By Scott Libin, RTDNA Ethics Committee Chair
Updated Friday, November 20 at 6:15pm ET with statement from Smith College
At the beginning of the semester, I promised students in the media ethics class I teach that we’d never run low on fresh, relevant material for our consideration. That’s been an easy promise to keep.
The latest case study comes from Smith College. According to media in the area, Smith students held a sit-in this week to express solidarity with protesters at the University of Missouri. Activists there got the university’s president and the MU campus chancellor to resign amid charges of racial insensitivity.
At Missouri, resistance to mainstream media coverage led to some tense moments and continuing controversy over the relationship between journalists and those they cover. That conflict erupted anew at Smith when, MassLive.com reports:
Smith organizers said journalists were welcome to cover the event if they agreed to explicitly state they supported the movement in their articles. Stacey Schmeidel, Smith College director of media relations, said the college supports the activists' ban on media.
MassLive.com identifies Smith senior Alyssa Mata-Flores as one of the sit-in’s organizers and quotes her as follows:
"We are asking that any journalists or press that cover our story participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color … By taking a neutral stance, journalists and media are being complacent in our fight."
I’ve tried to contact Mata-Flores, but have so far received no response. Late this afternoon, Schmeidel provided this statement, which said in part, "Several media reports have inaccurately characterized the college as supporting restrictions on media; the college supports no such restrictions nor do we or will we ban media at public events."
Schmeidel also provided two links to blog posts by the Washington Post's Erik Wemple, who wrote about the situation on Thursday and Friday.
Smith students can minor in ethics, the college’s website says, allowing them “to concentrate a part of their liberal arts education on those questions of right and wrong residing in nearly every field of inquiry.”
Clearly journalism is one of the few fields of inquiry in which Smith students are not educated on “those questions of right and wrong.” Indeed, the site says Smith College has no formal journalism program.
If there were any actual journalism educators at the college, presumably one of them would acquaint this week’s sit-in organizers and the college’s media relations office with the fundamental ethical concept of independence.
Independence is a guiding principle of the RTDNA Code of Ethics, which begins with these words: "Journalism’s obligation is to the public. Journalism places the public’s interests ahead of commercial, political and personal interests. Journalism empowers viewers, listeners and readers to make more informed decisions for themselves; it does not tell people what to believe or how to feel."
That means responsible reporters covering important events and the issues that underlie them don’t take sides. They certainly don’t “articulate their solidarity” with those they cover as the price of admission.
In its section titled “Independence and Transparency,” the RTDNA Code says: "[P]olitical activity and active advocacy can undercut the real or perceived independence of those who practice journalism. Journalists do not give up the rights of citizenship, but their public exercise of those rights can call into question their impartiality."
Speaking of transparency -- and the closely related value of disclosure: I had the privilege of chairing the committee that wrote the RTDNA Code. But our association is not alone in recognizing the critical importance of independence.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics headlines one of its four main sections with imperative to “act independently.” It says, “Journalists should: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
Anyone smart enough to study or work at Smith College should recognize the glaring conflict of interest inherent in “explicitly stat(ing) support for the movement” as a prerequisite to reporting on that movement.
Protesters at Smith, Missouri and elsewhere don’t trust outside media. They may have good reason for that, in some cases. But requiring a loyalty oath of journalists is not the way to express their dissatisfaction. Without media coverage, such student movements would reach far fewer people with their messages.
Without the opportunity to report impartially and independently, reporters cannot provide the journalism that communities need and deserve. Activists and others should hold journalists accountable for the jobs they do -- not ask them to check their ethics at the door in exchange for access.
Scott Libin chairs RTDNA's Ethics Committee and serves on the Association's board as Region 4 Director. He is the Hubbard Senior Fellow in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.