Following the attack on Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich on 22 May, there was an active public debate in social and traditional media about whether media coverage of the incident was conducted in an ethical manner. So we at the NCTJ asked David Holmes, lecturer in journalism at the University of Sheffield, and Professor Sarah Niblock, head of journalism at Brunel University, to weigh in on the importance of ethics training in light of the Woolwich media coverage, and how the incident was addressed in their classrooms. Here’s what they had to say.
To my mind, the most surprising thing about the current debate about ethics in journalism education is that it is taking place at all. How could young reporters possibly learn to do their job well without recognising the constant value judgements that are implicit in it? Every time we gather information, capture an image, write a sentence, select the elements that will form a finished page, we are making choices that will shape how people perceive their wider world. A reporter who does not recognise this is unlikely to be a good reporter.
For many years now the strong, reflective journalism courses have created bespoke time in the curriculum where this thinking can take place: ‘the ethics module’, for want of a better label.
But we all know that journalism rarely provides the luxury of reflective space. Newsroom decisions are taken on the hoof, under the tyranny of the deadline, in the face of fierce competitive pressure, and invariably before the broader context of a story has been shaped. So a good journalism education should have the ethics module at its core, but it must also simulate newsroom pressures so that the editors of the future feel the beast on their back as they form their decisions.
The journalism educator can’t simulate Woolwich, or anything like it, for every news writing workshop. But it is possible to thread editorial choices into even the most mundane of fare. Thus our new students at the University of Sheffield are given a fairly routine police press release about a knifepoint mugging in which an inspector spells out the key characteristic of his suspect: he was ‘fat’. Do we take the politically correct route and change that to ‘overweight’? If so, what does that mean? Don’t we risk subtly altering reality by making that change? Aren’t we editing the way police officers think and speak? And what business is it of ours to shield ‘fat’ people from the possible stigmas associated with their condition?
If we routinely ask such questions in the classroom, ethical reflection becomes an integral part of good reporting. Young journalists may develop a habitual editorial framework that will be there to help them when that critical decision crashes into the newsroom unannounced. Would you run a front page pic of a villain brandishing a blood-soaked knife after yet another gangland stabbing in the street? Possibly not. Well, how about a bloke who’s standing before a video camera brandishing a dripping red meat cleaver, with which he’s just butchered a soldier, whose lifeless body lies in the background? This man has already gone out as-live on the internet. And look, he’s not a stereotypical ‘bearded Muslim’. Not an easy decision.
I put my students on the spot when I spread the front pages in front of them and asked for a show of hands. There was a clear consensus that most editors had got it right. And I think they thought about it carefully before their hands went up. What troubled them more was the Daily Star’s squashing and stretching of the image to get both the killer and the body on their front page. People just aren’t that shape. Now that really IS altering reality, isn’t it?
- David Holmes was a municipal reporter with the Morning Telegraph in Sheffield, and then worked 15 years with the BBC. He reported live for BBC Radio Sheffield on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, and subsequently co-produced a three-hour live programme that was broadcast jointly with BBC Radio Merseyside. David can be found on Twitter at @spikefodder.
Our students’ reactions to media images of the Woolwich killing encapsulated the critical thinking we seek to instil in the new generation of digital journalists at Brunel University. They were instantly empathic – how in the immediate aftermath would Mr Rigby’s family feel at seeing his bloodied and lifeless body? They sought context – was distribution in the public interest or to interest the public? Was the accompanying display text inflammatory or informative? Many were concerned at one broadsheet splash’s juxtaposition of a strapline with the reported threats of one of the alleged attackers. They’d have published the images, they said, but with calm, reasoned factual contextualisation – and on an inside page. The front page would have featured an image of Mr Rigby his family would be comfortable with.
The abiding textbooks instruct students on how not to fall foul of professional codes as if ethical judgment is a skill to be learnt like shorthand. A major point of difference between developing ethics and developing skills is the involvement of journalists’ own experiences, conceptions and values. Skills tend to involve journalists applying practices learnt through mimicking and reproducing methods demonstrated by industry experts, while confidence in identifying and responding to ethical matters tends to involve a longer commitment and therefore a more intimate relationship with oneself, sources and audiences. I call this the difference between ‘knowing how’ to do journalism (mechanical skills in the classroom) and ‘being able’ (making confident editorial judgments, albeit in a split second).
At Brunel, all students undertake a 12-week professionalism and ethics module on arrival, where we not only look at codes but also look at ‘soft’ skills such as empathy, compassion and active listening. Formal delivery is supplemented through weekly guest speakers who include mainly editors who reflect on tough decisions. But we also bring in people who’ve experienced trauma at the hands of inept journalists. We use role play, simulations and even cinematic depictions of ethical scenarios to examine situations from the differing viewpoints of all involved. It’s only when students put one foot in the shoe of the other person that the real ethical ‘work’ starts to happen.
- Sarah Niblock reported on the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster for the Birkenhead News, and continues to work as a journalist. She is an academic fellow of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, based at Columbia University, New York City. Sarah can be found on Twitter at @BrunelJourSarah.