The first time I publicly protested anything, I was 6 years old.
I was attending Davison Elementary in Detroit where I grew up. My school, like so many others in Detroit, struggled mightily with resources. Where I felt that inequity most painfully was during recess.
My school didn’t have a playground or athletic fields. We often just paced around a big field of dirt like prisoners. On our best days, my crew of friends and I pretended to be members of the A-Team, rescuing underdogs in epic ways just like the characters in the NBC-TV series. So desperate for some form of normal play, we resorted to taking an empty half-pint milk carton, filling it with dirt and then using that as our football.
The lack of adequate playground equipment filled me with enough rage one day during recess in first grade that I tried to lead the other students in a daring walkout. I believed we needed to send a strong message that we weren’t taking this anymore. So I started climbing this 15-foot tall chain link fence that encircled the school. I was escaping.
But halfway up the fence, a member of the school staff grabbed me by the leg and pulled me down. The walkout ended abruptly. Next thing I knew, I was laid across the lap of my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Cunningham, who then spanked me in front of the whole class with a paddle.
That walkout was not just my first public protest — it was my last, and not because that paddle put the fear of God into me about exercising my First Amendment rights. It’s because about 12 years later, I became a journalist and devoted my life to the calling.
Most journalists — outside of the ones whose job is to express their opinions — cannot protest publicly, as in marching down streets waving signs and chanting about what we want and when we want it.
The trust that has eroded between the news media and the people we serve is a serious matter. The causes of this distrust are numerous and complicated — disinformation campaigns, the public’s growing reliance on social media for news, the politicization of facts, unchecked biases among journalists and a failure by news organizations to listen to their audiences.
Every day that goes by without us working to regain that trust will inevitably lead to a slow bleed out of our livelihood.
At the Houston Landing, we will try to earn your trust by doing the hard work, by providing truthful and essential journalism that makes your lives better, by listening to what you have to say. We’ll also do it by finding as many opportunities as possible to be transparent and explain what we do and why we do it. And that brings me back to our ethics policy.
Not even bumper stickers?
So why can’t I participate in a public protest? Here’s what the Landing’s ethics policy states:
“We refrain from any partisan political activity, such as making campaign contributions, posting campaign signs, putting political bumper stickers on vehicles, or running for office. We do not sign political petitions, participate in political marches or engage in other activities if it raises questions about our impartiality.”
In addition to never protesting, I have never stuck a bumper sticker on my car to avoid any appearance of favoring one issue over another. I have never run for office – other than serving as treasurer of my daughters’ Girl Scouts troop. My favorite prohibition selfishly, though, is the one against signing petitions. Do you know how many door knocks at home from political campaigns I have been able to end abruptly by using the journalists-can’t-sign-petitions card?
One question lobbed at me routinely through the years as a journalist: Do you ever go undercover? No.
Here’s what our ethics policy says: “We identify ourselves as journalists when conducting interviews and we do not mislead people, use hidden cameras, or go undercover.”
We are not interested in gotcha journalism or concealing ourselves just because it would help us nail a story. If it means we have to work three times as hard or take advantage of every word of state and federal open records laws to uncover an essential hidden fact, we will. Transparency is just too vital to our mission of strengthening democracy.
A common criticism we hear in our profession is the freewheeling usage of anonymous sources. Brave people often risk their jobs or lives to share confidential information with us that could help the public good. Granting these sources anonymity is often the only way to expose wrongdoing.
But should our industry be more disciplined on how often we rely on anonymous sources? At the Landing, we say yes. Here’s what our ethics policy outlines: “We use anonymous sources sparingly and only for compelling reasons. If we do use an anonymous source, we explain why in the story. We will not grant anonymity to sources whose quotes are only used for mudslinging or similar purposes.”
The power of photographs
Our ethics policy doesn’t just govern the words we write. It also deals with our photos.
Photojournalists often capture people in their rawest emotions. The power of an emotional and intimate image can be far more lasting than the written word. That’s why we have safeguards to guide our photojournalists. Here’s what our ethics policy on visual journalism (drawn from the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics) says about one especially important matter:
“Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.”
Our ethics policy addresses many more potential landmines. Do we pay sources for information? No. Can we own stocks? It’s complicated. How about plagiarism? Dude, seriously.
Because there are so many more issues that will emerge for journalists – the internet wasn’t even invented when I started as a reporter! – our ethics policy will be a living and breathing document.
But we might have also missed some standards and guidelines you think are important right now. You read, see and consume journalism. You hopefully see us at our best. But you likely also see us at our worst – when we fail to be stewards of transparency, honesty, fairness and integrity. Tell us what you would want in our ethics policy. After all, it’s designed with you in mind – to ensure your trust.
Email me at email@example.com