Ethical questions for journalists covering protests

March 2, 2017 01:30

By Kevin Benz, RTDNA Contributor
Access RTDNA's coverage guidelines for civil unrest here.

As I watch protests across the country, whether they center on the use of force by police, political issues surrounding the new administration or the recent “Day Without Immigrants,” I am reminded of the diversity of thought that exists in every protest. Here in Texas, certainly across the Southwest and in many other communities, the word “immigrant” is connected indelibly with “Hispanic” or “Latino” (depending on where you live). But “immigrant” is also meaningful to many whose American story goes back more than three or four generations. How much coverage will include those stories and avoid the obvious cliché of “Illegal aliens?”

Protests have become nearly a daily ritual of dissent across the country and, in some cases, across Europe. Covering protests, dissent and civil disobedience raise important ethical questions for the journalist:
  • What is the truth behind the protest? Are the protestors challenging specific new programs (like the immigration ban) or are they protesting against a broader backdrop of dissent — against “Trump” or against “the right” — or is this a counter protest against a protest?
  • Who are the stakeholders in this dissent? Often, those caught up in the march have no idea who is leading or organizing the protest — they simply saw or heard an issue that appealed to them and joined. Who will benefit from the change being advocated by the protest? Who might be harmed? Who is affected by the actual event itself — drivers stuck on closed roads, storeowners on the route, etc.?
These are not just rhetorical questions for a journalist, they speak to the honesty and dispassion you try to bring your fact gathering and storytelling. Note: By dispassion I don't mean “avoid passion.” No, sincere emotion is at the heart of good storytelling. But passion can also get in the way of truth. The challenge for a journalist covering a protest is to find passion based in truth not in rhetoric.

Here are a few guidelines for journalists covering protests, dissent and civil disobedience:

Aim for fair rather than balanced
As you go about gathering your story, think about how to be fair to the protestors and to those who might disagree. “Balance” suggests your storytelling should include equal weight for all sides of a story. This approach, while theoretically sound, is not realistic. Most stories, and certainly all protests, are a kaleidoscope of points of view. As you go about gathering your story, think about how to be fair to the protestors and to those who might disagree. For example — think of a hate group march. Say 10,000 people show up to protest 3 members of a hate group marching on the Capital. Balance suggests you give both groups equal time, but that is hardly fair. Fairness suggests you tell the story of the 10,000 protestors — a communityagainst hate — while giving only some mention (and perhaps no sound) to the three hate group members that brought everyone together.

Be independent
Your own inherent bias about the themes of the protest will most certainly be tested. Your job is to recognize your own bias and overcome it. Again, be fair to the opinions you hear and weigh them as you would for any issue.

Recognize the diversity of the group
People protest for many different reasons, avoid assuming everyone is there for the exact same cause. Ask people why they are there and what issue they are most passionate about.

Avoid allowing one person to speak for everyone
This happens of course when a large protest is formed by charismatic leaders who are readily available (and anxious) to speak. One person can never speak for any large, diverse group. Talk to them, yes, but also get information from those in the middle and at the end of the march.

Find the stakeholders
Who are those at the front lines, most affected by the dissent? Find immigrants and refugees, find women who fought for abortion rights back in the 1970’s, find those who feel their way of life or their religious conviction or their job is being threatened. Dissent is not a one-way street, it’s a roundabout.

Avoid suppositions and stereotypes about the protests, the protestors and those they protest against
This is most important when violence and vandalism breaks out. Ask - are “protestors” the actual perpetrators of the violence, vandalism or crime?” Is this a “protest” that turned into a riot? Or are the perpetrators of violence actually criminals taking advantage of the distraction? The words you use to describe the protestors and the criminals will shape how your community sees the events.

Go deep
Protestors are often accused of “not voting” or of being “professional protestors” brought in from other places — are they?

Observe how is the protest is affecting the community
Sure, there may be traffic tie-ups and closed roads, but protests can also weigh on a police department’s resources. What about businesses on the protest route, are they supportive? There are many sidebar stories that give a more holistic view of what is happening.

The protests, dissent and civil disobedience we have witnessed in the past few months show no sign of abating. The American founders knew something about protest and dissent so they made sure to protect that right in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Your community deserves fair, truthful coverage that enlightens rather than simply enflames through (often hateful) rhetoric. Use protests and dissent as opportunities to educate and tell the stories of those who feel so strongly about a subject, they are willing to put themselves out there is such a public way.

You can follow Kevin Benz journalism blog at Kevin coaches newsrooms in ethical journalism, covering race and culture, enterprise reporting and talent performance.