Roy Exum: The Canons Of Journalism

Monday, March 24, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Certain members of the Chattanooga Times Free Press seem to have over-stepped the basic “canons of journalism” Thursday night when they played outside the established rules and later published the identities of several people who took part in a “call in” session in Chattanooga’s Violence Reduction Initiative. I can say that because, quite frankly, I’ve done it myself a time or two down through the years.

I have great respect for Alison Gerber and her editorial staff. She has some solid professionals who are good reporters and fine writers. When the newspaper doubled its daily price to a dollar the other day, I didn’t even blink because I don’t care what they charge; I’ll skip lunch before I go without the newspaper each day. And despite last week’s slip, I still trust what I read each day.

After all, it was the Times Free Press that introduced us to the desperately-needed initiative with a sterling eight-page section that was devoid of all advertising. It was a forceful and very needed voice in stopping the shooting and saving young people’s lives. If I dare say, it became the biggest factor that sold our community on the High Point method that will hopefully rid us of senseless shootings and the polarizing black-on-black crime now in our neighborhoods.

I suspect that because of the newspaper’s committed stance, its reporters were given “inside information” that wasn’t shared with other media outlets and last Thursday night, when some criminal types were called to a meeting where trust, reconciliation and possible redemption were paramount, the newspaper’s representatives sadly violated a common ethics principle known as the “limitation of harm” rule.

According to Wikipedia, “limitation of harm” is where a committed journalist may “withhold certain details from reports such as the names of minor children, crime victims' names or information not materially related to particular news reports release of which might, for example, harm someone's reputation.”

Imagine a woman who has been raped – the Times Free Press wouldn’t dare hold her up to public ridicule but will most certainly identify the alleged attacker. News reporters all over the country protected the kids who were abused by a (very few) Catholic priests and there are many other examples where mere decency has trumped total exposure in the media business that I can recall.

Consider this -- at Thursday’s call-in, there was not one crime committed, nor was there any arrest. Both sides made it clear there should be and would be anonymity but the newspaper’s editors erred by ordering the reporters to provide identities – and allowed them to be published – in a manner that very definitely flies in the very face of the “limitation of harm” rules that newspaper reporters have embraced for over 200 years.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, there are eight areas of the Harm Limitation Principle that should be on display in every newsroom:

-- “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

-- “Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

-- “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

-- “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy.

-- “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

-- “Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.

-- “Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.

-- “Balance a criminal suspect's fair trial rights with the public's right to be informed.”

* * *

Do any of those sound like they might fit? Again, the 13 people who were summoned to the non-threatening Olivet Baptist Church were not arrested or detained. A mighty effort to ask their help in confronting bloodshed most certainly should overcome “lurid curiosity” and the only “overriding public need” was reflected in the faces of those who vow to help change the lives of those they stood beside to share pizza and concern.

The newspaper’s Gerber loyally defended her actions, stating that “to rely on the mayor’s office and report only (its message) would be poor journalism,” but Alison is known and respected among her peers as being thoughtful and fair. It is believed, without pale, that she embraces the part of the creed that demands, “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.”

So what happens now? Andy Berke and his Violence Reduction Initiative crowd have been stung indeed by this unexpected turn but nobody predicted this would be easy. We all know any path to success will most definitely be a rocky one and there will be disappointment on both sides. Yet the first step in reconciliation is, according to the High Point model, forgiveness.

Paul Smith, the mayor’s noble “superintendent,” needs to bear an olive branch and go before the newspaper editors because the most important cog in the VRI is working together. The newspaper editors, facing harsh disdain, need to promise they will take their own gunslingers out of the equation. Yes, report the news fully and factually but do so with integrity. That is all any of newspaper critics ask.

Most importantly, let’s move on. Both the Mayor’s office and the newspaper’s leaders know we have a real chance at something special.

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