Wick Communications

Activist or journalist?

In Ethics on February 3, 2017 at 12:13 pm

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This week, Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post about how a guy named Lewis Wallace got fired from a journalism job for eschewing objectivity in a public forum. It’s a good reminder that, while we all have opinions and should act in accordance with our moral compass, we have obligations as employed journalists to rise above the fray.

Wallace, then a reporter for radio’s “Marketplace,” posted a blog on Medium in which he wrote, in part, “We need to admit that those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten level fairness are our enemies.” He subsequently wrote another post, a very intelligent and reasoned defense for his position.

In this instance, the company says Wallace violated stated policy by saying he wouldn’t treat everyone fairly. If that is the case, I’m not surprised he lost his job.

Regardless, with great respect for Wallace’s obvious moral stance, I think publishing the fact that you plan to treat some potential sources as enemies is bad form. Company policies aside, some things are just common sense. Don’t go to pains to say you are taking sides in the ongoing, intensifying culture wars on which you report. …

Why? Well, I’ve heard it said that our journalism is our activism, and I believe that. We have a pulpit already. Our role in the protest is to cover it, to bring complaints to the masses, to give voice to public policy concerns, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable to paraphrase a 19th century Irish bartender who coined one of the most famous phrases in journalism.

When we publicly take a side, we undercut the power of our journalism. And that is a self-inflicted wound that we can’t afford.

My daughter was very disappointed in me for not taking part in the recent women’s marches that followed the inauguration. When I thought about why I didn’t take part, I realized that, without thinking about it, without any directive from my job, I had instinctively distanced myself from some causes that are important to me as a citizen of the world. It doesn’t make me less committed or concerned. The journalist in me just won’t let my inner activist run wild. I worry doing so would lessen my superpower.

Clay

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