The pressure on journalists to get a stories up faster, and to craft language and headlines that generate clicks not sell papers, has changed journalism. These changes often lead to sensationalized reporting, assumptions about people and facts, and a lack of respect in reporting that contributes to white supremacy, transphobia, and the dehumanization of people.
To minimize the lack of respect in a changing media culture, Press Pass TV launched Respect in Reporting, a media justice campaign. Dr. Cara Berg Powers presented the Respect in Reporting campaign in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 22 at the Wilder Foundation as part of The Uptake Institute’s Conflict Sensitive Journalism Fellowship. As a fellow in that program, I found the examples of media injustice presented by Dr. Berg Powers to be disturbing — yet sadly familiar.
To get sense of how media injustice is perpetuated, Dr. Berg Powers highlighted a recent case in Boston. A young man was shot and killed in front of his house. Several media outlets reported that the young man was “known to police.” The “known to police” meme became “possibly has gang ties.” In the end, the young man had a heart condition that kept him in close contact with emergency authorities. The media has gotten it wrong, and grieving family was disrespected.
This example echoes instances of disrespectful reporting in the Twin Cities in recent years. In November 2014, one of the major news stations ran a news story about Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges had been out doing a get-out-the-vote event on Minneapolis North Side community, a community hit by lack of investment, police brutality, and historical racism. Hodges and a young man posed for a photograph while pointing at one another. KSTP ran a story claiming that Hodges and the young African American man were throwing gang signs. The story became #pointergate and KSTP became a national laughingstock. The station stood by the story even though the facts were thin, and the accusations of racism almost universal.
But there are people committed to increasing respect in reporting. What impressed me most in Dr. Berg Powers’ presentation is that journalists already have the tools to be respectful in their reporting. The Respect in Reporting campaign takes the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and updates it with a social justice frame. It demonstrates how reporters should already be reporting with respect on issues like crime and murder and community conflict.
What I will take away from the day of training and the presentation by Dr. Berg Powers is a new lens through which to look at news reporting. I can’t look at news reports now without examining them to see if a respectful or disrespectful frame has been used, particularly when violence is the topic. Does the reporting put victims at further harm? Does it exaggerate perceived dangers of a block or neighborhood? Have all parties been treated as human beings with the due respect they deserve? Does it make assumptions about race, class, religion, or gender?
As media continues to transform due to financial pressures, the transition from print to digital, and the pressures of a changing broadcast sector, the tools identified in Respect for Reporting will be vital to upholding the ethics of the profession and ensuring all communities trust us and our work.