AP Photo/Veronica G. Cardenas
Anita Varma is the assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics as well as Social Sector Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
When should journalists display sympathy in their coverage, if ever? What if their audiences do not share their sympathies? If journalists claim to serve communities, does that mean audience preferences should shape coverage?
Speaking to a full room at Excellence in Journalism 2019 in San Antonio, Texas last week, three journalists on the panel “Immigration Impact: Beyond a One-Dimensional Narrative” wrestled with these questions. At a particularly telling moment, they responded to a question about how to respond to audience feedback that coverage is “too sympathetic to immigrants” at the US-Mexico border.
“You have to give everyone a voice,” said one journalist, who also acknowledged that she couldn’t quite articulate how she does so.
“I don’t know if we should be covering more of the supporters of these policies,” said another.
“We need to be okay with calling White supremacists exactly that, if that’s what they are,” remarked the third panelist, who connected critics of sympathetic coverage to xenophobia.
At a moment of fractured consensus in communities that journalists profess to serve, who should journalists stand with and against? And why?
A traditional answer is that journalists should remain detached, without detectable sympathies for anyone. Yet across the history of American journalism, journalists have prided themselves and their craft for speaking truth to power, demanding accountability from officials who might prefer to operate in the shadows, and standing up for disenfranchised communities.
A second possible answer might rely on market-based logic to contend that journalists should acquiesce to treating journalism as a business, and therefore should aim to “give people what they want.” In other words, if customers are not sympathetic to immigrants, then arguably journalists should shy away from displaying such sympathies, lest they lose their (monetizable) audience. Journalists at the Excellence in Journalism conference – and the world over – are almost always resistant to the idea that they should simply cater to audience interests, however, since doing so forfeits news judgment to quantifiable popularity.
An ethical place to begin is for journalists to renew focus on centralizing dignity as a key principle for coverage decisions. In the context of journalism, if a group of people is living within conditions that disrespect and deny their basic human dignity, this constitutes suffering – which is newsworthy.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics articulates a commitment to dignity in these terms:
“Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”
At a moment of fierce disagreement across civil society, it may seem naïve to suggest that there are still baselines that we can agree on – but even the most contentious factions should be persuadable to view basic shelter, safety, and food as basic respect that every person deserves. For many people waiting or separated at the border, these requisites have regularly not been met – which provides one set of ethical grounds for journalists to justify their sympathetic coverage.
What’s notable – and encouraging – about the panel conversation at Excellence in Journalism is that none of the journalists denied that their coverage displays sympathies for immigrants at the border. Instead of sidestepping the question with a well-trodden yet dubious appeal to neutrality, journalists on the panel accepted the premise that their coverage is sympathetic to immigrants, but argued that sympathy is grounded in lived realities rather than unexamined personal preferences.
Journalists have consistently displayed convictions for their reporting, and now they are increasingly called upon to justify these convictions. Moving away from a veneer of claiming impartiality signals hope that journalists might begin to acknowledge and justify their commitments on ethical grounds more frequently, rather than leaving them unspoken.