Fear and journalism

Update: On the other hand, maybe there is a problem with timidity in journalism. Apologizing for asking for a public record? Oddly, the apology by the publisher of the Cherokee Scout, who says the paper made an error in judgment in asking for the names of people with concealed carry permits, never explains what the error was.


My friend Jack Lail has a good summary of the problems associated with NASCAR’s reaction to the video of the wreck at Daytona yesterday. I’m not going to use it to talk about fair use or censorship or citizen journalism. Instead, I’m going to use it to illustrate something else: timidity. Bear with me.

Poynter published an article last week explaining how a Supreme Court ruling 25 years ago in a high school journalism case has affected student journalists. Here is one point:

“Truth #5: Students are entering college timid and unaware of the power of journalism and free expression.

“’What I’m hearing at the college level is that students are arriving in a damaged state,’ (Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank) LoMonte said. ‘They have been trained to believe that publishing material that upsets people is a bad thing. They have been trained if you ask too many tough and embarrassing questions of your institution that your story can be killed and you might personally be punished.’”

For those of us who appreciate a strong, vigorous and fearless press, that’s bad news, if it’s true.

I have only anecdotal evidence that the timidity does exist. (I don’t know that it is better or worse than it was 25 years ago.) As we discuss news stories and ethics in my college classes, the sentiment is strong among some that publishing upsetting news is bad form. It’s not unanimous, but the feeling is evident. Students are sensitive to people’s feelings, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing…until it means you eliminate newsworthy information. “Why do you need to publish the name of the person whose house just burned down?” “This quote is going to get him in trouble. Why should I include it?”

And when I tell students that they’re going to have to interview people before writing a news story? Some of them resist.

Consequently, I try to teach them courage. No, that’s not right. I teach them to go without fear. What I call “no fear” for short. Not to be afraid to ask anyone anything. Not to cower when a source finds the question impertinent. Not to back away when the source threatens to call their boss or their teacher. Not to be intimidated if the source snaps at them. And, of course, not to be nervous to set up an interview with anyone.

“What’s the worst that can happen to you?” I ask. “They get mad. They yell at you. They tell you they’re never going to talk to you again. Big deal. They’re bullies. Don’t let them bully you. Your obligation is to the story, to the truth, to the reader.”

I don’t know that they were raised as “sheep,” as the director of one journalism school  told Poynter. They could simply be shy…or to have more compassion than previous generations. But if they want to be journalists, they need to leave that timidity behind. They shouldn’t become assholes, as Steve Buttry aptly puts it, but they do have a job to do. (One thing I do is show them Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about body language and faking it until you make it.)

What’s the connection to the NASCAR video? It was posted on YouTube by a spectator, Tyler Andersen. I don’t know what Mr. Andersen does; I doubt that he’s a professional journalist. But he did record a newsworthy video and had the sense that it would be something people would want to see.

He quickly accepted NASCAR’s explanation that the video had to be taken down “out of respect for those injured.” Andersen tweeted: “Can fully understand why NASCAR took the video down. Meant no disrespect to any involved. Once again, keep all affected in your prayers.”

No reason that Mr. Andersen should be expected not to bow to the power of NASCAR. Fortunately, many journalists stepped in to repost the video and to criticize NASCAR and YouTube. This is what you would expect journalists to do — to defend the publication of the news and fight those who want to squelch it.

My guess is that if a high school student comes to college wanting to be a reporter, he or she will get enough experience asking hard questions and tackling tough stories that he or she will buck up. If not, they will find another major.

Update II: Winston Cavin, my colleague at UNC — he also predated me at the N&R — wrote this on Facebook: “It’s hard to put a finger on, but I think today’s J-students are more sensitive and compassionate than my generation is. Richard Cole taught me, at 19, that, “If you don’t step on some toes, you’re not doing your job.” I don’t judge students for being more concerned about people’s feelings, but try to get across a professional identity separate from personal identity. Develop a game face. Don’t accept obstacles; overcome them. Use elbows. In your off hours, be nice to animals.”

5 thoughts on “Fear and journalism

  1. Nice, and I suspect this attitude is best taught at a student news organization, so I shared it with a group that will reach the students at the Red and Black at UGA.

    At the same time, many of them face readership challenges just like the pros. It’s about balance.

    And it’s probably no mistake that newsrooms had traditional divides between investigative and hard news teams and community sections. Perhaps that helped people deal with dual functions: Be a part of the community, but be able to ask it the hard questions. Without the former, you don’t build trust for the latter.

  2. So you mean all those years I was being an asshole I was DOIN IT RONG?? In that case, I have no choice but to blame my editor. ;-)

    I haven’t seen any detailed chronology of what happened inside YouTube and parent company Google yet. But it looks as if YouTube complied with the takedown request immediately out of an abundance of caution and then, after having time to consult with its lawyers, determined that NASCAR had no case and reposted them. If in fact that’s what happened, that’s good, although better would have been for everyone who’s ever in a position at YouTube to respond to such a request to know the law well enough to decide on the spot whether to accede to NASCAR’s request or tell NASCAR to get bent.

    Two lessons for reporters: 1) In North Carolina, at least, carry a copy of the Open Records Law. If someone denies your records request, pull out your copy of the law and ask them to point to the part that says you can’t have what you asked for. 2) When news happens and shows up on YouTube, reporters (and lawyers) need to download it fast, before it disappears.

  3. Glad to know I was an asshole then John. I had excellent Journalism teachers at Ohio State. They were plain spoken, blunt when necessary and helpful all the way. To this day, I am still proud about the stories I covered and columns I wrote.

  4. This resonates with me. I’m a quiet, polite person and this was one of the tougher lessons I learned on the job. I didn’t face a lot of that kind of decision-making while in school, and I’m glad to see it being addressed now with your students.

    Being a reporter means accepting that sometimes your work will make people angry, and staying sane as a reporter means accepting that their anger is their problem, not yours. It’s vital that students and early-career reporters hear this message from as many places as possible. Additionally, newsroom leaders need to make it clear they will stick by their people. That alone can go a long way in beefing up reporters’ chutzpah.

  5. Pingback: The only thing you have to fear…. | Media, disrupted

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *