Journalism without ethics isn’t journalism


Why we’re intent on axing “citizen journalist” from our mission

By Margaret Wright

— The crisis of public confidence boiling over in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown last month has been disturbing to witness for many reasons. For one, the sorrow, anger and long-simmering frustration vented on the streets of suburban St. Louis mirror the pain and disenfranchisement felt by many here in New Mexico. A separate crisis of public confidence was also on display, this one evident as journalists flooded Ferguson to garner ratings, mouse clicks and “networking opportunities.” Their approach lent a frequently hazardous lack of nuance, sensitivity and objectivity to much of the coverage. Such deficits further degrade confidence in news media, which across all platforms is historically low: According to results of a Gallup poll released in June, the only institution Americans trust less than television and Internet news is the U.S. Congress.

Media criticism leveled by members of the media themselves sometimes gets dismissed as self-absorbed and self-referential, just more toothless chatter from talking heads who love talking about themselves most of all. Yet there’s an important section at the end of the code of ethics that many media organizations, including the Compass, look to for professional guidance. It emphasizes the responsibility of journalists to “be accountable and transparent,” and specifically calls upon them to “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.” These imperatives are central to both restoring and maintaining public trust in the media.

Wide-ranging quality of coverage in Ferguson highlights the urgency of questions we at the Compass are posing as we report on how civilians interact with public leaders and officers of the law in Albuquerque:

How does representation of events shift depending on the profit motive of the venue or the diversity of its contributors? How does a reporter’s use of language (“protest” vs. “riot” or “police” vs. “cops”) affect the tone and balance of their work? How many reporting venues are up front about their organizational values? Do high-profile sources have clear, accessible ethics guiding the information they distribute? Do ethical guidelines mean anything without a transparent process to ensure they’re adhered to?

An item that popped up on my Twitter feed on Aug. 19 underscores all these inquiries. It was from the U.S. Press Association, an organization that issues IDs to freelance journalists. USPA’s website says it’s guided by the belief that freelancers, including “(bloggers, photographers, podcasters, videographers, writers, and those associated with radio and other publications) should be entitled to the same rights, privileges and treatment as our counterparts that work in ‘mainstream media.’ ” USPA also says it follows the same Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics the Compass uses. I was surprised (and said so) to see the organization celebrating the work of Leo York, an Albuquerque-based photographer who runs a popular Facebook page, Inhabitants of Burque.

York’s photography in Ferguson (where he gained some notoriety) appears to violate several tenets of the SPJ code of ethics. Missives like this along with his quotes like these go against SPJ instructions to “label advocacy and commentary” and “avoid lurid pandering.” There’s also this example of York’s exchanges with his public Facebook audience:

Wendy Garcia-Montano Wanna know what was said about our city? He said the people of Ferguson were much more commited [sic]than ABQ. ABQ had one RIOT (not protest) and then they were like, ” I think I’m just going to go get a burrito.” Can’t you all see he promotes violence and unrest? I bet he is sorry there weren’t more riots here so he could keep “reporting” on them! Like · Reply · 9 · August 17 at 11:11pm

Inhabitants of Burque I am sorry we don’t stand up to people getting shot by the cops every week. I am sad you support murder. Like · 5 · August 18 at 12:37am

York fails to “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment,” nor does he “encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.” Yet even CNN, during its own ethically questionable stream of reactionary coverage, highlighted him as a legitimate source of news events in Ferguson.

Via Twitter, I urged the USPA and York to compare the SPJ code of ethics against his body of work. I then spoke over the phone to the USPA Executive Director Glenn DePretis and explained my concerns. Could I lodge a formal complaint? Depretis said only active members of the organization could initiate a complaint process, adding that because he appreciated my “passion” about the issue, he would waive all fees and automatically make me a member of the association.

I asked what the complaint process would look like if I joined. “The moment you become a member, we monitor your work,” said DePretis. “Then, if there are infractions—a series of them especially, a pattern of unacceptable behavior—we will scale. We will warn, we will suspend, and then we will revoke.”

By ‘we,’ I asked, “do you mean like an advisory board?”

“Member-based,” said DePretis after a pause. “Randomly picked members.”

Unfortunately it only takes one instance of “unacceptable behavior” to undermine an individual’s or an organization’s credibility. And since the USPA doesn’t fully vet the work in a freelancer’s portfolio before one joins the organization, it’s impossible to know how any “randomly picked” member is qualified to make ethical judgment calls.

York himself expressed understandable dismay over fallout from a Gawker article that employed other unethical tactics to besmirch his name. As public responses to York’s output demonstrate, a lack of clear ethical protocols may have already done most of that work for Gawker’s writers. As I attempted to point out to York and the USPA, careful adherence to the SPJ code includes many helpful side-effects, including acting as a shield for thoughtful journalists if their work comes under scrutiny.

This story-within-a-story about media’s role during highly charged news events illustrates the import of why Compass staff will be urging our board of directors to formally simplify the phrase “citizen journalist” in our mission statement. Adding “citizen” to a journalist’s title unnecessarily muddies the definition of a profession that bears heavy but clear responsibility. If your aim is to be a professional journalist (and we can include under that umbrella terms like blogger, photographer, podcaster, etc.), ethical conduct should be your chief concern. It should also be your responsibility to align with media organizations that have transparent, steadfast commitment to enforcing ethical creeds, which is why I respectfully decline USPA’s offer of membership.

Citizen action in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, along with attendant media scrutiny, may prove to be powerful forces shifting the larger national debate about how Americans relate to their government and law enforcement agents. And both forces highlight the urgency of placing ethics at the center from which all our work as journalists stems.


  • Joe Cardillo

    Great post Margaret. In particular, the transparency aspect is important – it doesn’t matter if an org has an ethics policy if you can’t tell that they’re following it…and many ethics issues come from what is not shown / explored / presented, and related decisions.

    An interesting add, this piece on PBS Media Shift digs into problems w/personalized v. overall ethics for individual journos and news orgs:

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