Responsibility as a watchword in journalism: How what we do can cause collateral damage and why that should matter to us

An email popped up late Monday night that reminded me published information has an impact on people, and it’s not always good:

Thank you so much for informing students about the importance of editing and proof reading. However I would appreciate it if this picture of me with the horrible headline was taken down because it comes up when someone googles me and its really starting to affect my life as many have seen this.
Thanks for understanding.

The email came from the young woman who was the unfortunate victim of the headline “Definitely Doable,” which we discussed in a post earlier in the year here on the blog. As I mentioned in that post, she was likely to be the victim of some unfortunate attention. I did some checking to make sure the email was legit, offered her an opportunity to speak her mind on the blog if she felt compelled to do so and then I made some edits to fix the situation as best as I could.

Journalism is a field in which you can have a profound impact on society. If you don’t think so, look back at what happened during Watergate and see what is happening now on the national media front. Local publications can investigate claims that have wide-reaching impacts, like the Watchdog crew at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has done with its look at tainted alcohol in Mexican resorts and deadly delays in the screening of newborns for certain conditions. Even small publications can have an impact in informing people about things like why it is a road is closed or why it took four squad cars and a tow truck to take care of an SUV that broke down on Main Street last night. (It happened in Omro last night and the reason is incredible.)

On the other hand, what we write also has a chance to create collateral damage, something I didn’t think about when I posted that young woman’s name with the story about her. Sure, I could make the argument that her name was out there already and that about six people read this blog, so why should I be concerned? Still, “everyone else did it” is the kind of excuse you’d expect from a 12-year-old who ate a Tide pod, not a writer with a decent ethical code.

Around the time I was pondering this, I got a message from a fellow educator about a national media outlet’s coverage of the Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who had been missing for more than a month. Tibbetts’ body was found Monday, which the national media outlet announced with no named sources and no sense of timing. My colleague knew members of Tibbetts family, who found out about it via the national report instead of from the officials investigating the case.

“10 minutes later they got the call,” she wrote.

The family was a mess and rightly so. Local outlets did more due diligence in finding named sources, announcing a more complete report and providing at least a moment of breathing space between hearing a rumor about the body and announcing it. One reason might be the local media folk have to live there after the national media packs up and moves on to the next sensational story of death and mayhem.

Reporters in and around the Iowa towns connected to Mollie Tibbetts might see her mother or her cousin or her friend at the store or a festival and have to justify their actions. I doubt Katherine Lam, who broke the Tibbetts story, is worrying too much about that as she moves on to writing about a “Teen Mom 2” star’s ex-boyfriend who was busted for running a meth lab. (Really. That happened.)

I spent my professional reporting and editing life on the crime beat, where it always was about getting the news fastest and publishing it first. I could justify a lot of things by saying, “It’s going to be put out there some time and at some point, so I need to do it first.” In a lot of cases, covering crime made me feel OK about that because, hey, these people were doing bad things and letting the public know about it was my job. However, I rarely thought about the families of victims or the way in which my actions might have unintended consequences.

That wasn’t always the case, and I can still remember the sting of it all.

I was finishing up a story a day-side reporter left behind about a 4-year-old boy who died of AIDS-related complications. The boy’s mother, father and brother all had the illness and the prognosis in those days was not good for any of them. I had to call the mother, who agreed to speak with me but told me she would only do so if I promised not to discuss her boyfriend (the boy’s father) and his HIV status. I agreed and we did one of the most uncomfortable interviews of my life.

When my editor saw the story, she overruled me on the issue of the boy’s father. I fought back as best I could, but I was a 21-year-old cub reporter and she was the city editor that night. The story included information I promised I wouldn’t put in there and it had my name on it. All the begging and arguing in the world didn’t change that.

Shortly after that, I came in for a shift and found I had a voicemail waiting for me. It was the boy’s mother who said that she saw my story and so did her boyfriend. She said he was so distraught, he refused to leave the house to mourn his own son and that she held me personally responsible for that. When I told my editor this, her attitude was essentially, “Oh well…”

I like to think of the job of journalists as one where we tell people things they need to know, whether or not those things are pleasant. I never had trouble with the idea that people might be upset with things I wrote, so long as something valuable came out of that discomfort. When what I did hurt people who didn’t deserve to be hurt, that shook my sense of self and my ability to justify why I mattered as a journalist.

In the media writing book, I quoted a scene from Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues,” where the main character realizes what he writes in his journal can create problems for people who read it or were featured in it:

“Something magical happens once it’s put down on paper. They figure no one would go to the trouble of writing it down if it wasn’t the truth. Responsibility was my new watchword.”

And it’s a good watchword at that.

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