Opinion
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Unethical journalism can make Ferguson more dangerous

Sometimes, ‘Don’t shoot’ applies to reporters as well as cops

August 19, 2014 6:00AM ET

“Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief,” reads the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.

As police in Ferguson, Missouri, prepared to enforce the first night of curfew on Saturday, I was transfixed on Twitter, refreshing the feeds of deployed journalists and waiting for them to drop the next tidbit of information. From these feeds, thousands of other people and I watched the countdown to curfew as though it were a high-stakes sports game — hungry for details and visuals. We learned that the police were firing tear gas, that the police said it was just smoke and that photos of the tear gas canisters eventually emerged, putting the cops’ credibility into question.

We also saw journalists display a shocking disregard for the well-being of their subjects, repeatedly putting them at further risk of harm. As the police prepared to clear the streets, reporters were tweeting the locations and actions of demonstrators, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were in effect gathering intelligence for the authorities. 

Some social media watchers were outraged that reporters were letting the police corral them away from the action into media pens, but downplayed in these discussions are the more abstract standards that ask journalists to consider the consequences of their actions. Along with “Seek truth and report it” and “Act independently,” the “Minimize harm” section makes up a quarter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Just because journalists can legally get away with something doesn’t mean they should. “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort,” the code says. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Hypercompetitive

In a hypercompetitive environment where the right scoop can net you tens of thousands of new Twitter followers and a national profile, journalists may not be willing or even able to take the time for editorial deliberation. The demand for more immediate knowledge has changed the game, and the attention market doesn’t pause for consideration — even when there are lives at stake. No one is going to open a Ferguson news bureau, and after the national reporters go home, the authorities will begin handing down consequences.

It’s not just the fault of journalists, though. Now that Twitter and Instagram have brought the barriers to publication to just about zero in terms of time and resources and journalists can publish information as quickly as they can experience it, the public feels entitled to real-time information about any newsworthy event anywhere in the world. We earnestly believe we are meant to see and hear everything as it happens and that the world is always better off for our attention. Transparency becomes not a means to justice but an end in itself, and a slavish devotion to immediacy and openness undermines one of the most important journalistic virtues: discretion.

Information may want to be free, but the police want to put people in jail.

As reporters on Friday night posted Vines of alleged looters taking things out of an electronics store, they probably weren’t thinking about throwing them in jail, but I’d bet some viewers — namely, the cops and their sympathizers — were. After the 2011 London riots (caused by a similar police execution, of 29-year-old Mark Duggan), some Londoners formed a group to run facial recognition software on all available pictures of looters in order to identify them and turn them over to the police. The New York district attorney’s office used footage from an Occupy Wall Street live stream to convict activist Cecily McMillan of assaulting a police officer. Information may want to be free, but the police want to put people in jail, and they’ll take whatever evidence they can get.

Live-streamers are the worst offenders when it comes to publishing without foresight. Whole categories of journalistic ethics are simply inapplicable to what they do because there is no layer of deliberation between what they see and what they publish. Like a gun stuck on automatic, they are incapable of prudence by design.

The ideologies at play can’t be discounted either. Now streaming out of Ferguson for Vice, the rabid transparency ideologue Tim Pool is at the far end of the spectrum: He claims his viewer count entitles him to stream anything he sees. Pool made his name during Occupy Wall Street, when he doggedly followed activists day after day, whether they wanted him there or not. “Everyone deserves to know the truth! Information is free! End of story!” Pool yelled at an OWS protester trying to explain to Pool why people didn’t want him recording them letting the air out of police car tires. “I also think that people’s personal safety is really important,” the protester answers, slowly.

Pool is no journalist, but new technologies and the breakneck pace of the news pushes them in his direction. Reporters need to reconsider the way they approach events like Ferguson, lest they forget what separates them from live-streamers. When we hear about journalistic ethics outside the classroom or newsroom, it’s usually in the context of plagiarism scandals or conflicts of interest with advertisers or government officials. But journalists are supposed to care about people’s safety as well as the quality of their stories and the number of followers on Twitter they gain. 

We all need media in Ferguson, and we owe the responsible among them a great debt. Using foresight and demonstrating concern doesn’t mean reporters can’t report. Often it’s a question of timing: Information published after a short delay is just as good for those of us at home but useless to authorities. We don’t need to know about everything in perfect detail as soon as it happens, especially if it puts the already vulnerable in more danger. Taking time to think about consequences for your subjects isn’t an abdication of your duties as a journalist; it’s a vital part of fulfilling them.

In light of the SPJ’s specific cautions about grieving, juvenile and private sources, I believe that publishing unedited images of Ferguson’s demonstrators engaged in possibly criminal behavior — including breaking curfew — is a breach of journalistic ethics. In the age of facial recognition, publishing images with identifiable faces while they break the law is as good as printing those people’s names — another violation of accepted practice. As a society with strong legal protections for journalists, we depend a lot on their tact, foresight and self-discipline. If it takes a monopoly on force to get journalists to shut off their cameras, then they end up serving the interests of whoever is most willing to hit them. Ferguson’s young black population is already fighting an uphill battle with the law, and it is flat-out wrong to make their road harder. To the reporter who needs to hear it spelled out: Sometimes “Don’t shoot” means you too.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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