Journalism, independent of the police

In a recent Chicago Tribune column:

It’s not clear to me where activists and demonstrators ever got the idea that public protesting is somehow a private act that can be conducted anonymously. It’s dismaying that they insist their threshold for personal trauma outweighs the tenets of responsible journalism.

Column: The Phoenix rises: Loyola’s student newspaper takes a courageous stand for journalism” — Eric Zorn, The Chicago Tribune, Sept. 4, 2020

Looming unsaid over this column, and over every column written and published during this time, is how the practices, standards and supposed “norms” of the professional journalism industry were cemented into the newsroom consciousness when newsrooms were incredibly racist, anti-Black, and highly conservative workplaces of ideology.

The Tribune Tower is a neo-Gothic skyscraper in Chicago. It was the home of the Chicago Tribune. Prior to the construction, correspondents for the Chicago Tribune brought back rocks and bricks from a variety of historically important sites throughout the world. Stones included in the wall are from such sites as the St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Trondheim Cathedral, Taj Mahal, Clementine Hall, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, Palace of Westminster, the Great Pyramid Notre Dame de Paris, Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, which inspired the shape of the building. by Gautam Krishnan
The Tribune Tower is a neo-Gothic skyscraper in Chicago. It was the home of the Chicago Tribune. (Gautam Krishnan via Unsplash)

The way that supposed professional journalists evoke the standards of journalism would suggest that such rules and principles are plucked from the ether as absolute truths of the practice. It’s not true, and any amount of glossing-it-over with brushes of journalism expertise doesn’t make it any truer. Journalists are not an objective, external observer of ongoing events; by our very presence, we impact and influence the events we document, however well-intentioned we may be in attempting to stay out of it.

Institutional newspapers have been notoriously racist institutions. In the 1940s, the Los Angeles Times explicitly called for and endorsed the unlawful and unconstitutional detention of Japanese Americans, including numerous U.S. citizens, shrouding its racist views under appeals for “wartime” necessities, and writing that:

“As a race, the Japanese have made for themselves a record for conscienceless treachery unsurpassed in history. Whatever small theoretical advantages there might be in releasing those under restraint in this country would be enormously outweighed by the risks involved.”

The Los Angeles Times, as re-cited in a 2017 editorial

And numerous other supposed “journalism tenets” continually reinforce America’s racist hierarchies. Mugshots, for example, have been a journalism staple for decades and are as indisputably a tenet of journalism as “objectivity” and “reporting the facts” might be; yet, after decades of campaigning, news organizations continue to display and update them on their websites, despite the evidence that such mugshot galleries undermine the presumption of innocence, reaffirm biases against people of color (especially Black and Brown people), and can tarnish someone’s future forever. Remember that booking photos taken by police as part of the arrest record are not evidence of conviction — and our own journalists have been the ones who continually pay attention to how police actions are racist and violent, and provide evidence to back up these claims.

Stories about how journalists stand up to the mob are easy to read and write, but do little to help repair the gaping trust deficit between newsrooms and the communities that they supposedly serve. After all, it is also our reporting that spread the news about how police use photos from social media to track down and arrest protesters, and how the police seek to use legal means to force news organizations to hand over unpublished documentation to reveal protesters’ identities. We know that these things can and do happen — and so do protestors, including those affiliated with Black Lives Matter that the Tribune’s op-ed columnist riles against.

Judge orders Seattle Times, four TV stations to give photos, videos of protests to police

Judge orders Seattle Times, four TV stations to give photos, videos of protests to police

The police department’s demand “puts our independence, and even our staff’s physical safety, at risk,” Seattle Times executive editor Michele Matassa Flores said.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/24/seattle-times-protesters-police-subpoena/

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You may try to hide behind the comfortable excuse that you are doing your job. It is not, and has never been, a good enough reason to inflict any harm upon other people, including by aiding the police and the systems of society that have failed them for so many centuries.

We have had protests following the police killing of George Floyd. We have had chats to say Breonna Taylor’s name. We have had story after story after story about how Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald and the year-long fight it took to release the dashcam video that showed how Chicago police lied and covered up the truth about his killing. How much more do you need to think about how cozy you want to be with the police?

That we as journalists have the right to publish information does not mean it is ethical to publish it; nor are journalists a de facto law enforcement assistant to the government.

Nobody is disputing that the protests on North Sheridan Road outside of Loyola University and involving its students should not be covered or reported by its student newspaper. The complaint was limited to the journalists’ broadcasting and publishing of photos and videos, which we know can contribute to later police investigations and arrests. Nothing stops the police from bringing their own cameras to protests — but if we as journalists are to remain truly independent of all parties involved, we should consider whether we’re doing the police’s job for them.