Good Journalism Builds Bridges, Does Not Burn Them

By Luis Gomez:

There is a moral lesson to be learned from a story out of Santa Barbara that is more relevant than ever and it applies to anyone who wishes to enter the field of journalism.

To paraphrase the words of my friend Josh Stearns, who writes about the future of news: Good journalism is the kind that is built with the community it serves, not just for it.

The unfortunate story comes from the Santa Barbara News-Press which has become a textbook example of how not to do this kind of journalism.

Santa Barbara News-PressAnd it all begins with a headline from its Jan. 3 front page, “Illegals line up for driver’s licenses.” With good reason, many of us journalists cringed. I certainly did.

letter to the News-Press from CCNMA executive director Julio Moran echoed the Associated Press reasoning for objecting such phrases like “illegals” and “illegal alien”: “Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person…”

The News-Press defended its use of the term, saying the paper has used it for years and called it “an appropriate term in describing someone as ‘illegal’ if they are in this country illegally.”

Legally speaking, the News-Press is well within its first-Amendment rights to use whatever language it desires. Ethically speaking, the News-Press’ argument falls short of meeting the standards journalists have set to conduct a profession that relies so heavily on trust and good faith.

American journalism is not just about first Amendment rights—it aims for higher standards of fairness, pluralism, civic engagement, and compromise. As someone who has worked in news for more than 10 years, journalism is a labor of love and not hostility.

Language that is hurtful to a group of people is language that does a disservice to its audience and its own community.

Regardless of the politics of the terminology, newspapers should be invested in the community they serve—it is not just part of their business strategy but it is also part of building a legacy. The people you write about are the very same people who advertise in your paper; they are the very same people who talk to your reporters; they are the very same people who read your paper and depend on the information you provide.

Fighting the very same community you serve is counterproductive and may prove fatal for an institution that relies on trust. Once it is lost, trust is extremely difficult to gain back.

Say you want to defend your first-Amendment rights to free speech? Refer to the Society of Professional Journalists or any legal organization to remind you that free speech comes with responsibility and consequences.

Legitimate news organizations don’t defend free speech to use irresponsible language. They do so in the interest of informing the public, without bias, and foster civic dialogue. Anyone can cower behind the protective mantle of the first Amendment, even hate groups.

The problem at the News-Press is not an isolated one, but rather a systematic one. The purposeful use of hurtful language that alienates a community shows how great a need there is for organizations like CCNMA and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Members of both organizations should demand better from the News-Press.

With that said, let’s take this as an opportunity to revisit the SPJ Code of Ethics:

  1. Seek truth and report it
  2. Minimize harm
  3. Act independently
  4. Be accountable and transparent

Luis Gomez is a CCNMA board member and a business editor at the Investigative News Network. Follow him on Twitter @RunGomez.

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