I believe in journalism, in the power of The Fourth Estate – as antiquated as the term may be. I believe that journalists should be protected because without them, who would hold the powerful accountable? Who would give voice to the voiceless? Without journalists, many of us would live in the dark, unaware of the changing events around us, from what’s happening in our hometown to parts of the world where few dare to go. I respect and admire the journalists who put themselves in harm’s way because they believe it is their responsibility to shed light on the world for the rest of us.
But with more frequency, I find myself embarrassed by the profession, questioning the actions of reporters, producers and news managers. And it was embarrassment I felt yesterday while watching reporters from cable and network news storm the home of the San Bernardino shooters in California.
— CNN (@CNN) December 4, 2015
On the surface, you could say the reporters did what every good reporter should do – they searched for the truth. But watching them work left me feeling queasy and in the end, I wonder what truth they found. A lot has already been written about whether these reporters acted appropriately – most have judged and criticized them for the way they handled this part of the story. Some had the counterpoint that these reporters just did their job and besides, what else were they supposed to do? As Justin Peters wrote for Slate were they supposed to “go back and wait outside while every other reporter is inside the apartment?” He has a point; no reporter could just sit back and watch in that situation, no reporter can go back to the newsroom empty-handed from that scene. Reporters know what’s expected of them by their managing editor, executive producer or news director, they know they’d hear about if they didn’t return with the same “get” their competitors took to their newsrooms. And that’s what bothered me about watching this chaotic and bizarre scene. These reporters displayed a vulture mentality, scavenging for scraps left over by police, the FBI and each other. It’s unclear whether they had permission to go inside the home, as the landlord said “they rushed” when he cleared a piece of plywood that blocked the door. We do know that the apartment was cleared by the authorities and was no longer a crime scene which leaves me wondering what they expected to find. You can presume that whatever was valuable to the investigation was taken away as evidence. Journalistically, how did barging into the apartment and going through these strangers’ things advance the story?
The cable newsrooms with reporters on this scene violated one of the main aspects of the code of ethics of journalism by not acting independently. They were influenced by each other when deciding to storm into the apartment all at once and to show the rummaging live on the air. That gave the reporters no opportunity to process or give context to what they found inside the home. Instead, they grabbed, picked up and inspected the belonging of strangers, wondering out loud about their significance.
If the goal of going through the apartment was to better understand the shooters, I question whether we did. We had already heard that their families had seen no signs of their radicalization, that they lived like any other couple with baby. We had already known that their seemingly normal lives didn’t match the crime. What did we learn by going through their things? I saw shots of the Koran and of a prayer rug and pondered the implications; how many viewers perceived them as hateful items that lead to evil-doing, even if you can find them in any peaceful Muslim home?
— Kate Mather (@katemather) December 4, 2015
Where do we draw the line when it comes to journalistic standards? What does integrity mean in journalism? When I posted a link to the video on my Facebook page, my only comment was “the state of journalism?” I meant it as an open-ended question because although I was embarrassed by what I watched, I also questioned how we got to this point in journalism in America. The public doesn’t often understand what we do, or the pressures we face as journalists. They mistrust our work and criticize our methods but they still watch and listen because we are their eyes and ears to the world, even if they don’t realize it. Instead of proving them right in their mistrust of the media with spectacles like the scene from that California apartment, let’s show them journalists still work for the public, not to beat their competition at the crime scene.