Controlling journalists, controlling the truth

460xJournalists are watchdogs. We keep a close eye on government, public figures, and companies. When they step out of line, abuse their position, or do something illegal, journalists expose it and reveal it to the public. It’s all about keeping people informed of what is being done by those in power, and allowing the public to decide on their fate.

Naturally, that means some people generally distrust the media, and others will go out of their way to prevent the truth from being told.

As a journalist, you shouldn’t let that stop you. You just need to recognize the ways people try to limit access by the media, and find ways to continue telling the story.

Some methods are blatant. The Associated Press reported today that St. Louis County police instituted a “no-fly zone” over the ongoing Ferguson protests as a way to keep the media out. It means news helicopters couldn’t fly over the protests, and airplanes carrying credentialed media also could not take pictures or view the scene from the air. It’s just the latest in a series of efforts by the police department to stop the media from covering the riots, including arrests of reporters and dismantling news equipment.

The treatment of journalists by police in Ferguson has been reprehensible and illegal. It even reached the point where President Barack Obama spoke out about it.

“And here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground,” he said this summer.

Some methods are more passive-aggressive. As pointed out by Poynter, congressional candidate Carl DeMaio has been blocking reporters on Twitter. The social media platform is a great tool to connect with people, answer questions, and be open to the public. But by blocking journalists, DeMaio is clearly attempting to control the flow of news, and only let his side of the story be told. Journalists need to be able to ask questions of candidates and confirm specifics about their platform and actions. If journalists are not allowed to ask questions, there’s no way to make sure what a politician is saying is true.

And some methods are much more subtle.

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Derek Jeter, recently retired mega-rich baseball player, launched a new web site called “The Players Tribune,’ featuring guest columns from the likes of Blake Griffin, Danica Patrick, and Russell Wilson. Jeter wrote that the site was attempting to be “The Voice of the Game” by letting readers hear from athletes directly. In Jeter’s words, it will “present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes…”

Translation: without those pesky reporters asking questions.

The problem is, it also creates a one-sided approach. As Deadspin pointed out in its analysis, a piece written by Blake Griffin about former owner (and longtime racist) Donald Sterling can quickly be picked up as breaking news around the country. But is the column really Griffin’s words (possibly), or was it reviewed and analyzed by a PR committee before being packaged in the most marketable way possible ?(Likely)

A site like that is perfectly fine as a separate blog, but not as a substitute for actual questions and actual reporting. A reporter could have provided context to Griffin’s story about Donald Sterling, could have received more details about how Sterling’s racism was perceived by the team. It could have been a powerful account of why some of the most powerful athletes in sports never spoke out about the terrible racism being spewed and practiced by the man who signs their checks. With Griffin controlling the flow of information, it becomes a rehearsed essay that ultimately says nothing. It’s hollow.

Information can be shaped by whoever is presenting it. That’s why the truth is so important in the ethics of journalism. Seek the truth and report it. On its most basic level, journalists are tasked with finding the facts and sharing them with the world, no matter what methods people use to try to get in their way.

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