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University of Wisconsin–Madison


A guide to covering hate speech without amplifying it

Image of a microphone against a dark backdrop.
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“Hate speech is not free speech.”

This cliche can be heard throughout public discourse, often in opposition to racist, bigoted or hateful speech. Those who propagate the idea have good intentions — but they are incorrect. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that protection through years of American jurisprudence.

In his opinion in the 2017 case Matal v. Tam Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”

According to Caitlin Ring Carlson, associate professor of communication at Seattle University, those who support hate speech protection argue that hate speech functions as a bellwether for most forms of bigotry. The argument suggests that if bigots are prevented from publicly sharing hateful speech, society will have no idea of how racist, homophobic or hateful it is.

According to this logic, journalists must cover hateful speech so that it is exposed to public scrutiny. Society can then decide that hateful viewpoints are not socially acceptable.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” says journalism ethics specialist and Columbia University adjunct associate professor Thomas Kent, echoing the words of the late Justice Louis Brandeis. “So we really need to be spotlighting bigoted narratives and exposing them for what they are.”

But the realities of hate speech reporting are not always so simple. Socially conscious journalists are rightly concerned with how pervasive hateful speech is in social and political discourse. Less talked about is the line journalists must toe — alerting society to hateful speech without unduly amplifying the voices of hate propagandists. The task is not easy, and if done inadequately, can have harmful consequences. Here are a few guidelines to make sure it’s done right.


To fully understand hate speech protection, it is imperative to contextualize the First Amendment. Jasmine McNealy, associate professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida, says the U.S. Constitution needs to be understood within a power framework.

The Bill of Rights was inspired by Thomas Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, both of whom owned slaves. The signers of the Constitution, many of whom went on to serve in leadership positions, were all white male property owners. In early America, Native Americans and Black Americans were intentionally left out of the country’s decision-making processes because of power dynamics and racism. In modern America, these same communities suffer the brunt of hate speech and have the most to lose as a result of unethical hate speech reporting.

“If we’re going to be Constitutionalist, we have to take into account that our Constitution was created by humans, flawed humans, who have a certain ideology,” McNealy says. “And that comes through in the language that they use, in how these things are interpreted by the courts. It continues to come through even in how we think about [the First Amendment].”

The journalist must first acknowledge the power framework that allowed for hate speech protection and how that framework informs hate speech reporting and the field of journalism in general.


Those who hold and share hateful views are often adept at trapping journalists and the news media. They create discord, often in the form of protests or rallies, that support their prejudiced ideas and opinions and then rely on news media to cover their hateful views no matter how subversive they are. Those who disseminate hate gain their power from the media, so choosing whether to cover them, as well as how to cover them, is powerful within itself.

“Journalists have to decide if hate speech is really newsworthy to begin with,” Kent says. “Is it telling us anything we don’t know?”

Responsible reporters must examine the newsworthiness of the speech to make sure they do not draw undue attention to ignorant, hateful and unproductive expression. Similarly, the journalist should examine the position and reputation of the speaker. Is the speaker a prominent figure in society, government or industry? Does the speaker have a significant following, and how likely is that group to commit hateful or unlawful acts? These are all questions ethical journalists consider. Their answers help determine whether the journalist should cover the hate speech or simply leave it alone.

“But the responsibility of the journalist is not whether the people have the right to say what they say,” Kent says. “It’s whether the journalist chooses to include it, and in what detail and for what purpose.”

Hateful, outrageous speech may be protected by the Constitution, but just because the speech is protected does not make it news.


Information does not exist in a vacuum and understanding where hateful expression is coming from is essential for understanding its meaning and effects. Amy Eisman, assistant professor of communication at American University, stresses the importance of context when reporting on hate speech.

“You are not just a microphone under somebody talking. You are putting it in a context,” Eisman says. “The context might be historic, it might be social, it might be legal. It could be any number of those things. But you have to be a reporter, not a recorder, and you have to offer context to whatever it is you’re reporting.”

According to Carlson, by failing to contextualize hate speech, the journalist does not tell the full story and in turn, does a disservice to the audience. When a journalist fails to explain the context of the speech, the audience may not understand the gravity of the speech and its negative effects on marginalized communities.

“Failing to contextualize some of these issues might serve to normalize it or make it seem like some of these terms or images don’t carry the weight that they do,” Carlson says. “Making it look kind of pedestrian or everyday, I think, takes away some of the impacts that it has on the people who are targeted by it.”

This normalization creates hostile, unsafe environments for those affected by hate speech — most often, people of color, LGBT-identifying individuals and religious minorities, according to Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.


Journalism students are often taught to cover all sides of a story. But when it comes to hate speech reporting, balancing hateful speech with opposing viewpoints is a nonstarter, Phillips says.

By equating hate speech with opposing views — the opposite of hate, whatever that looks like — the journalist essentially claims that hate speech is an acceptable mode of public discourse and belongs in the marketplace of ideas. Attempting to appear unbiased by showing opposing perspectives is a moot point, as there is no neutral stance to take, Phillips says.

“The both sides impulse when you are responding to hate speech, still it takes a stance. It makes a claim about the value of hearing this kind of speech,” Phillips says. “And that can really embolden and empower racists, even if that’s not the journalist’s intention, even if the journalist’s intention is to be really neutral. Neutrality isn’t neutral.”

Applying the “both sides” standard to hate speech reporting does nothing to help the public understand the root of this hatred and its effects on the communities targeted by hate. These stories should not be told through a point-counterpoint framework, Phillips says, but through a counter-frame.

In her report “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists,Antagonists, and Manipulators Online,” Phillips says reporters should emphasize the perspectives of those harmed by hate speech instead of offering the aggressor an opportunity to justify their repugnant views. Reporters should also avoid framing bad actors as the center of the narrative, as this behavior amplifies hate speech even when it is meant to condemn it.

“By not just shining a light on the aggressor or the racist expression, you can tell a fuller story by panning out and seeing who else’s story you can tell,” Phillips says.

Another framing technique could be covering the reaction, not the speech. In 2010, when a Florida minister planned to burn copies of the Quran, several publications centered their coverage on the minister or the fringe congregation. But the Huffington Post and Mother Jones took a different approach, choosing instead to report on the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s campaign to donate to the Afghan National Army a copy of the Quran for every copy burned. By framing the story around the reaction, rather than the hate speech, those journalists alerted the public to harmful expression without amplifying the islamophobia of a fringe group.

“How we frame things translates to reality, or how people perceive reality,” McNealy says. The journalist must be aware of how their frame translates to reality, whether that be undue amplification or other effects.


Covering hate speech is a delicate business full of fine lines journalists must walk. When done correctly, hate speech reporting can fight the spread of prejudiced ideas and educate the public. When it misses the mark, reporting on hate speech can contribute to radicalization and amplify the hateful viewpoints it is meant to condemn. To avoid that, Carlson suggests journalists go back to the basics of journalism ethics.

“What I always think about is that the Society for Professional Journalists has that code of ethics. And it requires journalists to one, seek truth and report it and two, [minimize] harm,” Carlson says. “I think we’re doing harm to our audience when we don’t call out certain terms or actions as what they are.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

A human and civic duty: mentioning climate change in weather broadcasts

Cloud-to-ground lightning 1. 5 miles west-northwest of Gilbert, IA.
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

About five years ago, veteran meteorologist Bob Lindmeier was pondering the disconnect between the science of climate change and the public’s understanding of it. Around the same time, he celebrated the birth of his first grandchild, a milestone that helped push him to change his approach to the weather segments he’d been doing, since 1980, at WKOW-TV in Madison, Wisconsin. 

“That’s when my focus started to shift not just to my lifetime, but their lifetime, and what the climate could very well be like when they’re adults,” says Lindmeier, who began tying climate change science into his weather segments. 

For a long time, weather forecasters were hesitant to discuss climate change, and some were even denying the science. According to Bud Ward, editor of Yale Climate Connections, the conversation changed about 10 years ago when a front page story ran in the New York Times.

Ward says the article was “about broadcast meteorologists who were basically key potential educators and informers or communicators on climate change science, but that they weren’t doing a very good job.”

Many factors have contributed to this lag in climate coverage, including lack of time or comfort on the part of broadcasters, concerns about viewership and management priorities. But according to Ward and others, broadcast meteorologists and weather forecasters have an important role to play in delivering accurate information about climate change.

As one of the more trusted broadcasters, meteorologists and forecasters need to consider their influence over viewers and how they can best use this connection to inform the public about climate change and its  impact on local weather.

Barriers to mentioning climate change

Part of the lag in coverage can be attributed to management and viewership issues, according to Lindmeier.

“There are some stations’ management that say, ‘We don’t want you to speak out about it,’” Lindmeier says. “Some of it is because they’re part of a conservative station group; they just have conservative leanings.”

Lindmeier also says that if a meteorologist or weather forecaster is new to the industry and trying to establish a loyal following, they may be more hesitant to discuss the issue. He reports losing some “long-term” viewers due to his broadcasting, but he has been willing to sacrifice that because “the upside of what [he is] doing…weighs so much more than the downside.”

While some broadcasters don’t have the knowledge to speak comfortably about climate change, the one-minute nature of a weather forecast may also be a barrier. According to Ward, the problem of brevity is compounded by the differential scopes between weather and climate: short-term and long-term, respectively.

Ward also cites the “media revolution” – the widespread migration from print to digital news – as part of the problem. Changes in funding have translated to lower staff numbers and not as many science reporters staffed to work alongside meteorologists. Justin Gillis, a columnist for the New York Times and former lead writer on climate science, also believes this to be part of the problem.

And yet, even with these barriers, Gillis does not let forecasters off the hook. 

“They are dealing with the weather on a daily basis and the problem people were observing and identifying is you [have] clear-cut events linked to climate change,” Gillis says. “It was not only not being mentioned by the weather forecasters, it was often kind of outright denial.”

Fortunately, there has been improvement over the past decade. According to Jeff Berardelli, meteorologist and climate specialist at CBS News, where climate change is concerned, reality has caught up. “I’d say the main reason is that climate change impacts are accelerating,” Berardelli says. “It is no longer far off in the future.” 

The role of weather forecasters in communicating science

Berardelli says weather forecasters have a responsibility to use their knowledge of climate change to inform the public.

“It is our duty to illuminate the issue with science, to educate the public and help viewers decipher what is true. It is both a science, and more importantly, a civic duty,” Berardelli says.

For much of the public, weather forecasters and meteorologists may also be their main point of contact with science.

“What I really emphasize to my viewers, or when I give a talk, is number one, this is not my opinion, this is what climate scientists are stating, and what I use a lot is peer-reviewed science,” Lindmeier says. “I use the trust I built up with my viewers and the public in general over 40 years so that they know that they can trust me when I say I’m giving them that peer-reviewed research, the accurate research.”

When the connection between climate change and weather events is straight-forward, the job is easy. And yet, according to Berardelli, this is not always the case.

“In other cases, the connection between climate change and weather is more gray and consensus has not been reached yet,” Berardelli says. “In those cases, it’s OK to tell the viewers that the science is not yet settled.”

The problem with causal links

When drawing connections between climate change and weather, Ward said weather forecasters and climatologists have grown eager “to show whether there’s a causal relationship or whether there’s just correlation between climate change and weather.”

However, Ward cautions that this is not the right relationship to be seeking.

“They probably shouldn’t ask, ‘Is that storm caused by climate change?’ They should ask whether it was influenced by climate change because there’s a much closer correlation between influencing than causing,” Ward said. “The answer may well be scientifically sound that (climate change) contributed to its frequency or severity, but not very sound in terms of whether that particular storm was caused.”

In relation to climate change’s influence, Gillis says that if and when events become more frequent, it is the job of a weather forecaster to report that.

“So when events happen, that we have the science…to say this is a lot more likely now that the climate is changing, it’s just irresponsible for people not to point that out on their weather forecasts,” Gillis says. “And the clearest case is heat waves. I mean if global warming means anything, it means that heat waves are going to increase.”

Ward also stressed the importance of not overstating climate change’s influence in weather events, such as flooding from storms.

“A good example is some of the storms that have hit the East Coast or the Gulf of Mexico, and some will say, ‘Well was that flooding caused by climate change?’ The answer may be no, but sea level is rising, in part because ocean temperatures are getting warm, so you’re starting from a larger foundation in the first place,” Ward says.

Berardelli also points to the importance of making the global phenomenon of climate change as local as possible.  In his forecasts, he talks about trends in local weather, such as temperatures or flooding, and talks about the impact these trends are having on his audience.

“We should show how those changes impact our viewers: should we plant our gardens earlier, buy more flood insurance and will our local ski resorts have enough snow to stay open?” Berardelli says.

Furthermore, Berardelli says meteorologists should be “empathetic about how people are impacted by climate change,” recognizing its uneven distribution, often affecting vulnerable populations the most. 

In the end, Berardelli, Lindmeier, Ward and Gillis all emphasize that the meteorologist’s responsibility is to deliver the truth.

“Regardless [of politicization], they should not shy away from their human duty of leveling with viewers by telling them the truth and their civic duty as an expert in conveying the science,” Berardelli says.

Resources for covering climate change:

Communicators have resources available to ethically and accurately cover climate science and weather. Lindmeier is part of the American Meteorological Society, which works to “promote the broadcast meteorologist to be the station’s scientist and use that as a way of talking about climate change.” is another resource available to professionals that provides peer-reviewed science in localized contexts for broadcasters to use in their segments. 

Lastly, National Climate Assessments are researched and compiled by the U.S. Global Research Change Program and delivered to the President of the United States and Congress every four years. Such assessments provide information on the impact of climate change on the U.S. and also break information down regionally.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Changing the narrative on gun violence: the new ethics of covering gun violence and trauma

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A shift is underway in how journalists cover episodes of gun violence and other forms of trauma in the United States. New ethical considerations are redefining the role journalists play in telling these stories and increasing the amount of community-based coverage, with journalists often building trust by reporting on the long-term effects of violence in their own communities.

“I don’t think it’s a hopeless picture,” Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, says. “I think there actually is a lot of innovation going on in this area.”

According to Shapiro, the question of which types of gun violence get covered is something that has changed over time, with journalists now placing greater focus on historically under-covered types of gun violence such as suicide, an effort that gives people a more accurate picture of where the biggest threats lie.

“We kind of define as news the thing that seems unusual, notable, new, right? That’s what makes it news,” Shapiro says. “This leads journalism too often to focus on the most spectacular kinds of carnage and ignore or pay insufficient attention to the most common and ordinary threats.”

According to Shapiro, the increase in the number of episodes of gun violence in the U.S. is partly responsible for coverage that favors larger, more horrific acts of violence. According to data gathered from Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings, at least 15,292 people were fatally shot in the U.S. in 2019. This figure excludes suicides. Also driving the coverage is the increasingly polarized debate around gun violence and about which measures, if any, the government should take to prevent it.

And yet the way journalists see their role in covering these horrific acts of violence is also changing.

“There are a lot of reporters, including at mainstream media outlets, that have been trying over the course of the last five or 10 years to do a different kind of reporting on gun violence,” Shapiro says, “to do the kind of reporting that focuses on the community impact of gun violence beyond these spectacular breaking news interruption kinds of stories.”

Among those reporters is John Woodrow Cox, an enterprise reporter at the Washington Post, who has written several articles about gun violence that focus on community effects.

In one article titled “How many children are affected by school gun violence in America?”, Cox argues that death toll figures that follow episodes of gun violence fail to capture the long lasting effects on those who witness such carnage and survive. “Beginning with Columbine in 1999,” Cox writes, “more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours, according to a year-long Washington Post analysis.”

“Many are never the same,” Cox adds.

Cox’s reporting provides readers with information that can change behavior or even inspire action. Cox goes beyond reporting the numbers, succeeding in helping the public more fully understand the issue. This type of reporting helps policymakers and community leaders better understand how they can support and heal the community following an act of violence.

Shapiro says that reporting on episodes of gun violence has too often focused solely on nurturing sources within the criminal justice system, such as police officers.

“If our sources are only people from the criminal justice system, then we’re missing half the story,” Shapiro says. “You need to have sources that are dealing with the impact of gun violence every single day. And if you’re talking to those sources patiently over time, that will change what you think the story about gun violence really is.”

Another reporter engaging in this sort of community-based reporting is Peter Nickeas, a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who covered violence and trauma for the Tribune’s breaking news desk for seven years.

In one article titled “‘Staggering’ number of children exposed to violence in Chicago; new study says kid population greater in high-homicide areas,” Nickeas reports that the number of children in Chicago living in areas with higher rates of homicides has increased, even though the overall number of homicides in the city has decreased over the last few years.

“Over the Fourth of July holiday, Felix Kombwa brought the children he mentors to a festival where a law-enforcement exhibit allowed visitors to sit in a squad car, try on police gear and chat with officers,” Nickeas writes. “But the fireworks, the presence of the officers and the sight of their weapons all scared the children, Kombwa said. They mistook the fireworks for gunshots and thought the guns, though holstered, were ‘too loud.’”

Like Cox’s reporting, Nickeas succeeds in helping the public understand the long-lasting effects of gun violence in their community. Nickeas’s reporting also helps the public understand where the threats are.

The kind of reporting that Cox and Nickeas are doing is notable because it defines the role of journalists as more than merely news gatherers and disseminators. This type of reporting asks readers to see journalists as fellow members of the community and has the potential to build trust.

Another example of innovative reporting on gun violence is The Trace, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the U.S. The Trace has produced several stories that represent a wide range of angles that often go uncovered.

In a recent article titled “When Protesters Carry Guns, Does It Impede Others’ Free Speech?”, reporter Olivia Li recounts how a January rally in Richmond, Va. ( in which pro-gun activists were protesting a series of gun reform bills going through the state General Assembly) subsequently prevented a group of counter protesters from attending, fearing violence. Many of the pro-gun activists in attendance were utilizing Virginia’s open carry law.

“Many of them were armed. The specter of a massive open carry demonstration was difficult for anyone to ignore,” Li writes, “but the day was also significant because of the people not in attendance outside the state Capitol grounds.”

This powerful lead offers a unique angle in its reporting on gun violence, focusing on the implications on freedom of assembly, a key pillar of democratic and civic life in the U.S. Li offers readers a look at the free speech implications resulting from open carry demonstrations and the potentially chilling effects on speech, and by extension, on democracy.

Li asks the reader to consider a distinct effect of the increased polarization around the gun debate and how that affects the communities in which people live.

These are just a few examples of individual reporters and news organizations engaging in a more thoughtful type of journalism—reporting that is grounded not only in informing people where the threats are but in uncovering the many ways communities are affected by acts of violence. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Journalism with a purpose: A Q&A with Lewis Raven Wallace on The View from Somewhere

Lewis Raven Wallace is an independent journalist based in Durham, North Carolina, the author of “The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity,” and a host and producer of a podcast of the same name. 

In “The View from Somewhere,” Wallace explores how the journalistic concept of objectivity has been used to silence marginalized writers and reinforce racism, sexism and transphobia. 

In his examination of social movements such as Black Lives Matter, Wallace argues against claiming that journalists are without bias in favor of a more nuanced understanding of journalists’ differing worldviews and the institutional power of the news industry.  

Wallace is also the co-founder and the national program director for Press On, a southern journalism collective that supports “journalism in service of liberation.” He previously worked for public radio’s Marketplace in the New York bureau and was the economics reporter and managing editor at WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

In a recent interview, Wallace spoke with the Center for Journalism Ethics about being trans in the news industry, what he means by the “view from somewhere,” building trust with news consumers and the importance of validating the perspectives of marginalized communities. 

What has your experience as a trans person working in public media looked like? 

I’ve been out for almost 20 years and the way I came into trans identity … there was absolutely no choice but to be an activist and an advocate for yourself. It’s hard to describe how strange of an experience it was to be in a space where my identity would be depoliticized or people would treat it as apolitical. For me, politics of gender and race and identity are who I am and have always been so intertwined. There were countless times that I didn’t feel comfortable bringing myself into those spaces.

What are the ethical standards that journalists should consider? Are they changing? 

I’ve talked to a lot of people, mostly people of color, queer and trans people who have dropped out of a journalism program because of how uncomfortable they felt with the vision being presented. I think it can have a direct effect on who feels like they can become a journalist. And similarly, I have also talked to people who are still studying journalism, but who think it is not nuanced enough for the situation that we’re dealing with in media today. The standards are different, especially in online media. And it makes sense. A lot of jobs in media at this point are for openly un-objective outlets. Part of my argument is that, that’s OK. There are good reasons why the standards are different. There’s sort of an old school of mostly male, white, older journalists who feel the standards are chipping away. And I’m sure that there’s a grain of truth in that, but they’re clinging to jaded notions of objectivity that emerged when almost exclusively white men were in newsrooms. Keeping younger people engaged with the idea of what journalism is and could be is something that I’ve witnessed since the book came out. I’ve talked with a good number of journalists and journalism students who were just really relieved. It’s been reaffirming to me that people can see their worldviews represented. 

What inspired The View from Somewhere? 

“The View from Nowhere” is the title of a philosophy book by Thomas Navel that came out in the ’70s. I read that book and wanted to ground my studies in a real and honest consideration of the very concept of objectivity. There’s a central philosophical question about objectivity and whether there are truths in the world that we can all agree on. That idea is up for debate and has been for decades. I also wanted to reference Jay Rosen, who has integrated the concept of a “view from nowhere” into discussions about journalism and has pointed out the impossibility and hypocrisy of journalism outlets claiming to have a view from nowhere. I just appreciate in general that many decades of scholarly study have helped us understand what can happen when we problematize the very idea of an objective viewpoint. I like the idea of “a view from somewhere,” being a very honest take. To say, “Here’s where I’m standing and now I’m going to tell my story and what I can see and verify factually.”

What should journalists do to ensure that the public can trust the information being reported? 

I think some journalism organizations are already doing a great job at really digging into transparency and showing their work and their process when it comes to verifying information and even the possibility of being wrong. There’s a less combative relationship. I think the more transparent we can be about our process and the more we are willing to listen to healthy constructive criticism, that can help us interact with our audiences. I think we need to listen to criticism and take it seriously. I also think we need to take seriously the portion of the population that doesn’t care about the news that we’re putting out and take seriously their reasons why. Over decades and generations, if you don’t see yourself represented or talking about the issues that matter to you in a way that is relatable, of course you’re going to tune out. And that conscious divestment isn’t the only influence on the failing business models for journalism. Not at all. A lot of that is about corporate consolidation and social media platforms. Some of the people who are underrepresented in our political systems also have good reason to distrust and divest from news outlets. Taking those voices and the criticisms of those communities very, very seriously, is another path to rebuilding trust. I think this idea that we should just appear objective is a very ill-informed way of thinking about how people develop trust. Trust is relational, it takes time. 

What are the challenges journalists from marginalized communities face when creating their own news? 

The challenges are all structural. But the funny thing is, marginalized people will always find a way to tell our stories. One way or another, we’re often doing it without the resources that it might take to do it as well as it could be done or as deeply. A lot of frustration for me was working within the public media system and desperately wanting these national news outlets to put those resources into the kinds of stories that could connect with the underserved populations. It’s about structural access to resources. Which is why a lot of people are working as journalists trying to land a job in mainstream media. Having weeks or months to work on feature or investigative stories as a freelancer or independent outlet is extremely hard. Once those resources are tapped into, who has access to them? 

What can happen when a journalist becomes the news? Can this affect the news coverage of a sensitive issue in real time? 

When journalists become the news, it can be for a variety of different reasons. But it’s complex. To not have your identity and body politicized or under attack is a form of  privilege. However, it can be a double standard for journalists who are constant targets because of their identity. For example, as I include in the book, I was fascinated by the New York media activists and queer media activists who reported on the gay community during the ’80s. Over time, it made it possible for journalists who were gay, to cover the AIDS crisis and make it visible. It was almost like a responsibility to do it justice. I think that kind of collective journalism is what matters entirely. It takes the presence of voices in the newsrooms, but also sometimes, louder voices outside of them. 

What do you hope audiences will take from The View From Somewhere? What does it mean to advocate for your work?

For the podcast episode that recently came out as part of our Kickstarter campaign, we talk about the “View from Somewhere” as an antidote to hopelessness. I think my collaborator Romana Martinez and I really want people to feel connected to these histories of journalists who have resisted and who stood up for justice. We want people to feel less hopeless about what’s possible. We don’t want people to give up on journalism because of the structural issues. We want people to take away that journalism still matters. It is a part of building toward collective freedom and liberation that is connected with history. I think it is a powerful way to be reminded of hope and possibility, that being part of change is possible.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

When ordinary people become a part of the news: A Q&A with Ruth Palmer

Photo of book cover "Becoming the News" by Ruth PalmerJournalists are constantly seeking out ordinary people as news subjects to bring humanity to their news stories and help their audience better connect with the narrative being told. Reading a collection of personal narratives of how people are going to vote, for instance, can be much more meaningful than simply reading the results of the latest poll to see where the candidates stand in the race.

However, there is a host of ethical dilemmas to consider when speaking to ordinary people as news subjects. I spoke with Ruth Palmer, an assistant professor of communications at IE University in Madrid and Segovia and author of Becoming the News, a book that studies how ordinary people make sense of becoming the subjects of news stories.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What responsibility, if any, do journalists have to help potential news subjects weigh the pros and cons of participating in a news story?

I think it’s important to keep in mind that not all news stories are equally risky for participants. It’s also important to keep in mind that not all subjects are the same. In a situation where a journalist is interacting with an ordinary citizen who does not have a lot of experience interacting with journalists, it’s important for the journalist to help the subject be aware of potential negative consequences of speaking out about that topic. I think that that has become more important now that news stories circulate on the internet. Because this material circulates online and audiences are often reading these news stories using the same devices they can use to then comment on them, anybody who speaks to a journalist for a controversial story has to worry about potential online harassment. So it’s important for them to help subjects prepare themselves for potential harassment.

What steps can journalists take to make sure they tell news subjects’ stories accurately?

Ruth Palmer

By virtue of their different positions in the relationship, journalists’ and subjects’ goals for a news story are often at odds. The journalist is looking to produce a particular kind of story whereas subjects have a different set of objectives. They want to communicate a particular thing or educate the public or publicize a particular venture. Subjects tend to dislike it if they feel that journalists are pushing them to say a particular thing. And this is something that actually happens a lot because of the pressures that journalists are under. So, journalists should avoid pushing subjects to say particular things to fit into pre-written stories. I think recording as often as possible is really important. I think another thing that’s really important is for journalists to try to manage subjects’ expectations. I think that they can make it clear to the subject that they, the journalist, will be picking and choosing what aspects of an interview are included in a story. And it’s very easy to prepare subjects for something like that. Subjects are not going to be discouraged or turned off by that.

How should journalists balance various ethical considerations—such as private citizens’ rights to security and privacy—against the public’s right to know the information in question?

The subject’s privacy and wellbeing should play a very big role in a journalist’s consideration. In most situations, journalists need to very seriously consider whether damage to a private citizen’s privacy and integrity is really worth the public good. There are some Scandinavian countries where journalistic norms are that you don’t name ordinary citizens who have been accused of crimes unless the crime is a very public one like an act of terror. I think that more American newspapers should consider that, and more American news outlets should step back and really consider to what degree the public has a right to know about a lot of this. What’s the public benefit? You have to weigh that against the in some cases very long-term negative repercussions on a private citizen’s life. In the U.S., there’s no right to be forgotten the way that there is in Europe, and so those news stories can just come up over and over and over.

You talk about how when subjects see themselves in a news story, they are seeing a version of themselves that is both familiar and unfamiliar to them. What do you mean by this, and how can journalists help news subjects prepare for this experience?

The way I describe it in the book is uncanny. For news subjects it’s weird to see themselves in the news, because they recognize that this is their name, but often they’re seeing a version of themselves that has been at least somewhat distorted by the news production process so that it’s recognizably them, but also just different enough to seem kind of alien. I think to a certain extent it’s just sort of inevitable. It’s not always terribly unpleasant for people. It’s mostly just weird. The one thing that might help is practice. When I spoke to people who had a little bit more experience being quoted and speaking to journalists, they were less weirded out by it.

You talk about reputation being social currency. What responsibility, if any, do journalists have to make sure they don’t sully the reputations of news subjects?

Depending on what the news story is about, it may be appropriate to sully the reputation of a subject. However, I would say that the bar should be set very high. In terms of what journalists can do to avoid damaging reputations, one thing they can avoid doing is quoting subjects out of context and obviously avoid misquoting them in ways that could potentially be interpreted as making them look really bad. Journalists should be very sensitive to that, especially if the story that they’re writing has a lot of moral weight with the audience. That’s when reputations suffer the most damage is when audiences interpret a story in moral terms. This is also where reporters may want to prepare subjects for potential fallout by advising them on how they can protect themselves online.

Finally, since we are in an election year, what should journalists be aware of as they approach voters for interviews?

As the country becomes increasingly polarized, for voters speaking out about their political views, the risks increase, because they’re entering into a public conversation that the audience feels very strongly about. In that regard, I think that journalists need to judge whether their subject is someone who has a lot of experience speaking to journalists and is therefore prepared for what it means to talk publicly about their vote. Journalists need to seriously consider preparing their subjects for potential negative online feedback. That can mean advising subjects to increase their privacy settings on their social media or hide their contact information. I think that a lot of people who have never interacted with journalists before tend to be very suspicious of their motives, and showing care is one of the best possible ways for them to combat the widespread mistrust.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.


Calling it out: A Q&A with Sophie Gilbert on what’s wrong with on-screen portrayals of female journalists

Image of seated reporters, with a woman writing on a notebook in the foreground.It’s not a new trope—the on-screen female journalist uses whatever means necessary, including her body, to get the story, or she doesn’t record an interview (apparently, she can remember it all!), or she floats from source to source without any plan for a final story. While it might make for dramatic TV, it’s an inaccurate depiction of both the ethical code and process of journalism. 

Richard Jewell, a 2019 film directed by Clint Eastwood, is the most recent narrative to fall prey to this trope. In the movie, Olivia Wilde plays the late, real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs, showing her sleeping with a source in exchange for information. Both Eastwood and Wilde have defended the decision to include the plotline, while Kevin Riley, the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where Scruggs actually worked, stated there was no evidence for the exchange happening that way and expressed his disgust with the film for using a “sexual stereotype to attack the media.”

Sophie Gilbert, staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote about on-screen portrayals in 2018 in an article called “The Lazy Trope of the Unethical Female Journalist.” In a recent interview, she spoke to the Center for Journalism Ethics about Hollywood’s inaccurate take on female journalists and how real-life reporters can and should challenge these depictions.

Do you see a connection between the public’s low trust in the media and TV and movie portrayals such as these?

The low trust in media is a complicated thing that I’d argue is more directly related to things like the decimation of local media, the rise of opinion news platforms, and the 21st century shift to a media landscape where pageviews are a significant factor. That said, I don’t think portrayals of female journalists that show them trading sex for stories help. I’m more concerned about how they affect the ability of women in the field to actually do their job, and whether they put those women at risk because people unused to working with journalists have a false perception in their head of what that process involves.

When did you first notice the disconnect between female reporters in real life and the ones on TV?

That’s a good question. I think it was when “House of Cards” debuted on Netflix. Its portrayals of female journalists were just so ludicrous, and so egregious, even for such a consciously over-the-top show. There was a minor furor at the time, but not nearly at the level that there would be now, at a time where so many journalists are on social media. When I started researching the trope for the story I wrote in 2018, I realized how long it had been going on, and how absurdly prevalent it was.

 Why do you think ‘sleeping with sources’ is such a popular trope onscreen?

I think it’s because Hollywood naturally gravitates to the most sensational kinds of stories for movies and TV, for lots of obvious reasons. And the easiest way to make a story exciting is to add sex or action or violence. I also think it’s kind of a self-affirming thing—the more it happens, the more it’s going to happen, unless it’s called out, because writers and producers also tend to be drawn to the same storytelling elements over and over. 

How do we as journalists help change and challenge this narrative? How do we show people what journalism and its code of ethics really is? How do we present the image you evoke in your article of “visibly tired, multitasking women working relentlessly because they know the stories they’re reporting are stories that need telling”?

I think we call it out, every time we see it. We make a fuss, and we let writers, directors, and actors know that this is a toxic trope in storytelling that bears no similarity whatsoever to the reality of the job. One problem is that journalists shouldn’t be, and shouldn’t want to be, part of the story. Most people get into this job because they want to tell other people’s stories, not their own. And that creates a paradox where the reality of the job isn’t then communicated to people outside the industry. That said, whenever real stories about the process of journalism are told onscreen (I’m thinking of Spotlight or in book form “She Said”) they tend to be thrilling and propulsive, so I’m hopeful they can make a small difference.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.