Guest Post by Claire Nowak, crafter of words
To report or not to report?
For journalists tasked with covering breaking news, the answer is obvious. Get the story, no matter what the cost.
Such dedication is a defining and often inspiring characteristic of the profession. Countless reporters willingly put themselves in harm’s way to gather and share vital information. Some give their lives to tell stories that would otherwise remain untold, as James Foley did covering war victims in the Middle East. To them, communication is more than a profession. It is a mission, a sacred duty to free the voices of their subjects and expose the public to their stories.
In upholding that duty, journalists can present a captivating story—at the expense of those voices they claim to liberate.
When news of the shooting at Umpqua Community College broke out, people around the country turned to social media for updates, including media professionals. One woman at the scene tweeted, “Students are running everywhere. Holy God.” Less than 5 minutes later, she was bombarded with replies from reporters asking for more details. Some prefaced the conversation with messages of (theoretically real) concern: “Are you okay?” or “Stay safe.” Others skipped formalities altogether: “Can you call me. I am with CNN. Follow me back.”
So-called “insensitive” reporters are not new. Consider the stereotypical image of a news anchor standing outside a burning building with a resident who has just lost everything and asking, “How do you feel?” Asking questions no one else will in order to bring new information and human reaction into a story is part of a journalist’s job. In this sense, Twitter is the perfect media platform for breaking news. It instantly gives reporters an exclusive scoop, a raw behind-the-scenes look at what’s really happening. But in a time when media organizations compete for the first post on breaking news, any chance of digital sympathy vanishes.
There is no problem in quickly finding sources for a story. The problem lies in neglecting care for the source for the sake of a story.
Journalists are forced to choose between competing loyalties—loyalty to their profession, and consequently the media consumers relying on their reporting for information, or loyalty to their sources as humans, who care, think, feel, and live as they do.
I am a journalist. I have been since I began reporting and publishing stories during my sophomore year of high school. But journalism is not the epicenter of my life. I am, first and foremost, a human being. If I cannot show compassion for my subjects or think of them as anything but a quote, I put my livelihood before life itself. A single story takes precedent over our humanity. Before long, there would be no one to read the stories I write. Accurate, up-to-date reporting is important, but is it worth the ethical integrity of our society?
That is the question.