Are newspapers speaking hate to power? Reconciling the role of the press with ethics

March 20, 2018

Isaiah Cordova

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     On Feb. 22, two varieties of flyers promoting a white nationalist group were found at UCCS.

   An unknown person placed the flyers on bulletin boards near classrooms promoting Women’s and Ethnic Studies classes and outside of the MOSAIC office.

    The Scribe covered the flyers in our Feb. 28 issue. I interviewed Jesse Perez, program director of the LGBT Resource Center, and Colorado Springs Antifa. I also requested an interview with the hate group that ultimately went unanswered.

    Similar flyers from the same group were found on college campuses all the way down the front range. Colorado State University’s student newspaper The Rocky Mountain Collegian, reported on the same flyers found on their campus, eventually writing a follow-up story published March 8.

    Collegian news editor Rachel Telljohn interviewed the executive director of the hate group, which is officially classified as such by the Southern Poverty Law Center,  responsible for the flyers.

    In the Collegian article, the executive director of the hate group stated that any press coverage was a “win.”

    Of course, the story had to be covered. There were members of a nationally recognized and reviled hate group on campus espousing their views onto students, knowingly targeting WEST classes and immigrant students.

     Are there journalistic ethics codes which reconcile balanced reporting and personal morals?

    The editors of The Scribe wrestled with the question of allowing “extremist” groups to get their voices heard through our publications.

    At The Scribe, and newspapers across the country, be it collegiate or not, we value the rights protected under the first amendment. Free speech is an important issue that is on the minds of students and administrators at our campus and the nation. We always want to provide a forum to share ideas.

    The Collegian is focusing more on “reporting hate on (the CSU) campus,” according to an editorial written by the editorial board on Jan. 16, while making it clear that the purpose is not to give these hate groups a voice through their publications. We want to hold these groups accountable too.

    However, as journalists, we are facing the tough discussion of where to draw the line when hate groups promote rhetoric that is harmful to others.

    There is an incompatibility that exists on all college campuses with the goal of promoting free expression and inclusivity, especially in an environment where a lot of the discourse is growing more and more exclusive—particularly with speech which promotes racial superiority.

    As such, the position of journalistic ethics on this issue exists in the same gray area.

    The rule of journalism is to report information truthfully and equally. But when the truth about a group is that they are objectively hateful and actively discriminating against another, what is the best course of action for the editorial staff to take when printing the hateful words they say?

    What are editors to do when printing a quote by a white supremacist can be just as bad as letting that white nationalist into the homes of a paper’s readership?

    The Society of Professional Journalists, the writers who laid out the code of ethics by which The Scribe abides, states that a journalist should treat people as human beings deserving of respect by minimizing the harm done.

    The code also states that journalists should, “Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.”

    When covering the “hard stories,” reporters give a voice to people historically given the short end of the stick.

    According to the New York Times, a study shows that there is a discrepancy among college-aged Americans of all backgrounds on the subject of the First Amendment.

    White republicans stated that they felt that their First Amendment rights were “very secure,” with an average of 75 percent saying so. On the other hand, students attending historically black colleges and universities stated that they feel their right to freedom of speech is not protected. Only 50 percent feel that their rights outlined in the First Amendment are secure.

    Clearly, even though universities continue to promote equality of opportunity and free expression, there is something lacking here.

    In our age of progress and growing equality, there is still some mechanism holding back progress in resolving this discrepancy of faith in the system. The systemic discrimination preventing faith in a person’s right to free expression is still very much present.

    For all we know, the cause may be the way the system operates and there may be no possible way to rid society of this distrust without a complete overhaul.

    In the meantime, until that mechanism of discrimination is eliminated, it is my hope to ensure equality and freedom of expression while protecting the readers that expression may harm.

    This may mean taking care to never mention the name of a school shooter, to making the picture of a flyer espousing white nationalist rhetoric as small as possible. This also includes regretting putting too much emphasis on a hate group, giving them whatever they wanted.

     The article I wrote on this hate group was 556 words long. There was one picture published, which we knowingly made one column wide, all in an attempt to reconcile balanced reporting with an effort to limit the group’s reach into our readership.

    And yet, despite everything, I still think that white nationalist group “won.”

    When reporting on a hate group which actively targets immigrants and people of color, there is no perfect way about it.

    All careful considerations to make sure that students which are targeted by this group are not affected drastically are taken, editors work to condense the story down to its most important parts while not giving a hate group undue visibility.

    The ethical problem of publishing the words of hateful individual should be recognized by readers of any news publication.