Every day there are ethical decisions that impact the hundreds or thousands of people who watch, read, listen, and/or click on a media source. The foundation for making the right decision starts with ethics classes in college. Students in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism will use this blog to reflect on ethical questions in the media today.
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Our Words Have Power ... Probably More Than We Realize
Words Have Power
In the article 'The Words of Journalists Have Power" by Waliya Lari, we are asked to look a little deeper at the effect our words can have as journalists. She uses the example of how the media describe people suspected of terrorism without providing context for why certain facts about this person are being reported.
Lari says, "“As journalists we know our words have power – the power to
inform, the power to influence, the power to create fear, the power to heal. … It’s
easy to take the power of our words for granted, until you started seeing and
feeling the harm of those words.”
Her example of people suspected of terrorism shows this point in that the media can provide certain facts about a person, but no reason is given to why this information is relevant to them being suspected of terrorism.
It is crucial to provide context to readers and explain why this information is relevant to a crime story.
"The problem is throwing out random facts without context
about a person accused of horrible crimes. Doing this implies these attributes
are inherently suspicious," Lari says.
Explain why the information you are providing is necessary for the reader to know.
Otherwise, you could be putting bias into your portrayal of this person and that should be avoided at all costs. Innocent until proven guilty comes into play here. We are not in the position to judge if a person is guilty or innocent or add any of our own opinion into it. Our only job is to report relevant facts and tell the truth.
What the Codes Say
Context is at the foundation of trustworthy and reliable journalism.
RTDNA code of ethics says,“Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the
rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional
And SPJ code of ethics says, "Provide context.
Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing
or summarizing a story.”
This is not an idea to be overlooked. If we are not careful with our words, we can cause more harm than we think about on a day to day basis.
We do not want to misrepresent anyone or any situation or provide any false information based on assumption, this is also something we could be sued for. It's called libel.
It is also important to think about minimizing harm when choosing how we describe suspects of crimes. How could my words affect this person, his or her family, etc.
“We need to include the facts about a suspect that are
relevant to the story and explain the relevance. … If we can’t explicitly say
why a factoid is relevant, it probably isn’t and doesn’t belong in the story,” Lari says.
This gives us a pretty simple rule to follow when providing context: if you can't explain why it's relevant to the story - don't put it in the story.
As long as you have a reason that you think the reader needs to know this piece of information and you choose your words carefully, then you are acting ethically.