From the editor’s desk: U-News, public journalism and media ethics

Nathan Zoschke

Bashing the media has become an American pastime.

Print, online and broadcast journalists often come under fire for coverage of sensitive issues and for allowing editorial bias to seep into news coverage.

Journalism, like every other profession, has its crooks and flaws.

It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but the power of the pen rests with the reader, not the writer.

With the exception of commentary and reviews, the role of the reporter is simple—to report facts.

Journalism ethics exist as a safeguard to prevent such abuses of power, and unlike personal ethics, which are subjective, journalism ethics are a professional standard of conduct.

U-News adheres to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, which can be found online at www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.

Last week, U-News was criticized for posting an image on its Facebook page of a body bag being wheeled into a van.

Some argued that because the death was a suicide, such coverage was tasteless.

The SPJ’s Code of Ethics states that journalists should, “Be sensitive seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy by grief,” and, “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

Some felt that a photo of a body bag crossed the line of propriety.

However, images of body bags are depicted in various media accounts, as are photos of coffins.

I would argue that the SPJ’s standards exist as a safeguard against sensationalist journalism. Many Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs depict unsettling subject matter, but they do so in a manner that is reverent to draw attention to newsworthy events.

Kevin Carter’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph depicts a vulture stalking a starving child afflicted by famine in southern Sudan. I cried when I saw the photo at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Carter was also disturbed; he committed suicide.

His photo was controversial, but it did what journalism should. Many Americans casually skim through written accounts of starving children in Third World countries, but Carter’s photo abruptly confronts viewers with a thought-provoking, gut-wrenching reality.

The body bag image is by no means material for a Pulitzer, but it was neither insensitive nor irreverent.

The text that accompanied the photo merely reported facts:

“A body was removed from bushes at the northwest corner of Linda Hall Library around 6:50 p.m. tonight. The intersection of 51st and Cherry was taped off mid-afternoon when the KCPD responded to a call. Check back for updates.”

The death occurred in a public space near the heart of the Volker campus, and rumors were being spread among the student body.

Despite this, the event was not covered in the local media or addressed by UMKC administration until the morning after the ruckus. Students had a right to know about a crime scene that could have impacted their safety.

Without a police report or any other official account of the incident, the photo confirmed to students that a body had been removed from Linda Hall Library and that police were on the scene.

Others criticized the U-News, pointing out that UMKC does not have a journalism school or department.

They said that because of this, student journalists at UMKC are not “real journalists.”

Public journalism must be a foreign concept to these ill-advised students.

One doesn’t need a college degree or lengthy curriculum vitae to report the news.

Sleazy bloggers and gadflies who don’t follow journalism ethics have given real public journalists a bad rap, but public involvement in collecting and reporting the news is what enables credentialed journalists to do their job.

As print newspapers continue to lose circulation and witness their newsroom staffs trimmed to bare skin and bones, it is up to public journalists to pick up the slack and counterbalance the corporate interests and political bias of big-name broadcast networks like FOX, CNN and NBC.

U-News exists as an independent student newspaper to give UMKC students the opportunity to learn journalism, regardless of what their career goals may be.

Basic interviewing, writing, editing, photography and communication skills are applicable to a wide range of careers.

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