By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Incoming Executive Director
The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force has two missions.
It defends the First Amendment and news media access against every threat to journalists’ Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report facts.
It also strives to help people understand why “responsible journalism” is essential to their daily lives.
But what is “responsible journalism?”
There have been, and will continue to be, thousands of investigative reports that have uncovered corruption and other problems, and have served as catalysts for positive changes at the local, state and national levels. RTDNA honors many of those stories annually with our Edward R. Murrow Awards.
“Responsible journalism” also occasionally involves situations where reporters and newsroom managers must prioritize their duties as citizens, and as human beings, above their duties as reporters.
Take, for example, what happened this week when Scripps-owned KSHB-TV in Kansas City, Mo., learned of a carjacking in which a three-year-old girl who’d been sleeping in the back seat disappeared with her family’s car. The station used its helicopter to help police rescue the girl. In fact, KSHB pilot Greg Bourdon and photojournalist James Moore found her and directed officers to her location before an Amber Alert could even be issued.
Last week, as pointed out by our partners at the Poynter Institute, an assignment editor at Cox-owned WSB-TV, Atlanta, kept a bank robbery suspect on the phone, with police listening in to offer guidance, while he was holding two people hostage and claiming to have a bomb. The standoff ended when the suspect was killed by police, but the hostages were safe.
As the story was developing, WSB-TV neither reported it nor posted anything on social media. News Director Misti Turnbull told Poynter: “We didn't know what he was monitoring. There was never anyone in the newsroom who questioned the decision to put people's safety first. Once we were off the phone, we started reporting what we knew. We were behind our competition in reporting the story publicly, but 'winning' the reporting race was not the priority at that moment.”
WSB-TV was praised by police for helping them save the hostages. The station’s actions were also consistent with RTDNA’s coverage guidelines for hostage situations. It’s one of nearly three dozen individual coverage guidelines we provide to help journalists navigate the difficult ethical decisions they must make every day.
Last month, a reporter for Raycom Media-owned WOIO-TV in Cleveland was messaging a murder suspect who had reached out to her on Facebook, with police offering her guidance, as he was holed up in a standoff with officers. The man eventually surrendered and the station posted a video on Facebook in which the reporter described in detail why and what she communicated with the suspect.
Which brings us to another way news organizations practice responsible journalism – transparency. Last weekend, when the KKK held a rally in Charlottesville, Va., Gray Media-owned WCAV-TV decided not to broadcast interviews of any Klan members.
As TVSpy reported, News Director Val Thompson posted a Facebook video explaining his newsroom’s ethical decision-making process and described in detail how the station would be covering the rally and why.
“We are journalists,” Thompson said in the video. “We have a responsibility to gather facts, to keep you informed, and to present accurately what happens. But we’re also members of the community, your neighbors. So it’s very important to me that our coverage of the rally reflects the actual opinions and the actions and the feelings of people who live here.”
And then there’s this way reporters and news organizations exercise responsible journalism – constructive dialogue with their critics. Reporter Nate Carlisle of the Salt Lake Tribune tried this week to have a meaningful conversation with a man who was hurling obscenities at reporters gathered to cover a story at the Salt Lake City federal courthouse. He wanted to find out why the man was so angry with the news media.
The man refused, so Carlisle wrote about it in the paper, in the form of an open letter. He explained to the man just who those reporters he insulted were and why they do what they do. It concluded, “We live among you. You will see us somewhere again. Next time, please, politely, walk over and introduce yourself. We'd like to get to know you.”
These are just a few examples of what we mean when we use the term “responsible journalism.” Call us Pollyannaish if you will, but we believe that even in today’s often-hostile anti-news media atmosphere, the more we as journalists help the public understand what we do and why we do it, the less they will consider us the “enemy of the people.”