On the Record: Q&A with an SOC professor and former working journalist of two decades

John Watson explains ethics, defamation and reliability

On the Record: Q&A with an SOC professor and former working journalist of two decades

Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for conciseness and clarity.

The Eagle has recently reported on sexual assault and harassment allegations, racism and the call to abolish social Greek life — all of which are complex issues with a variety of feelings and opinions surrounding them. 

As journalists, we have hard choices to make when reporting on these issues, ethically and editorially. In July, we published a letter addressing an anonymous social media account created by a now-former staff member.

To get a better understanding of why we make the ethical choices that we do in our reporting and publishing, we spoke with John Watson, a tenured associate professor in the School of Communication. Watson worked as a journalist for 21 years, and much of his published research focuses on media law and journalism ethics.

We asked Watson about the legality and ethics of reporting on these subjects and how social media has evolved to make decision-making even more complex.

Kelsey Carolan: Why is it important for journalists to remain independent from any story that their publication is reporting on, and, to go along with that, if a journalist does advocate for a certain side of the story that their publication is reporting on, what kind of issue does that create?

John Watson: Anyone who fashions themselves as a journalist has one basic mission, one way they serve society, and that is: Provide information that the public can rely on when it makes its decisions about important issues. So, the simple act of providing information isn’t enough — it’s information that the public can rely on. And that’s where the ethical concerns about objectivity, fairness and balance come in. Those are all concepts related to making what a journalist publishes reliable. Something that is biased is not reliable. Something that is not well-researched is not reliable. An even-handed presentation or, more importantly, the image of an even-handed presentation is what really contributes to making something reliable. It must not only actually appear to be even-handed, it must actually be even-handed. The perception is exactly like reality. So, if a journalist is known to lean or have favoritism or disfavor a particular side of an issue, that journalist cannot reliably produce information that the public can rely on. 

KC: Some of our staff members may say that they can choose a side, since they are not the ones directly reporting on the issue, or that they don’t even report news as a whole, so why should they not be able to advocate for one side over the other? What would you say about that and the ethics of being a part of an organization as a whole?

JW: If a person is trying to make sure that his or her behavior does not undermine the ethical behavior of an institution, they should make it absolutely certain that nothing they do reflects back on that institution. So, if there’s any possibility that your advocacy of an issue may reflect badly on your institution, you shouldn’t do it out of respect for the people who are trying to do the job professionally. The fact that an individual has no commitment to journalism should not give them an imprimatur to pull down the reputation of others associated with them that are. This person really should avoid being in any position where a member of the public might ascribe their activity to the news organization overall. If you are going to be an opinion writer, do only opinion writing. If you’re going to be a photographer, do only the photography that suits whatever you’re doing and will not undermine the integrity of the institution. People like that, to me, are looking for all sorts of freedom, but no sorts of responsibility or obligation to anyone else. It’s a very selfish thing to do.

KC: When reporting on matters of sexual assault or harassment allegations, can you explain the legality of defamation and why alleged abusers could claim that their reputation is being tarnished if their name was published in an article about only an allegation that is unverified?

JW: The law of libel is based on the assumption that the general public has some predetermined activities that they hate or feel contempt for people who engage in them. That’s basically what defamation and libel are all about. If you are described as a person who engages in, let’s say, loud talk. Society as a whole doesn’t really condemn loud talk overall. Most people won’t make substantial decisions about whether they like you or respect you based on whether you speak loudly. But, if you were to engage in egregious behavior like stealing from someone or physically assaulting someone, people would generally think less of you because of that. People will generally lose respect for you. Some people may even feel hatred for you. Any association with a person and bad behavior that regular people would feel contempt for that person, that’s defamation. Virtually, every crime has a defamatory impact — the greater the crime, the more defamatory the impact is. So if someone were to commit the minor crime of, say, littering, or, dropping an aluminum can on the sidewalk, nobody really likes that but no one is actually going to come out and hate you for it. They won’t feel great about it, but they won’t feel hatred for you. But if you move at the far end of the spectrum with illegal behavior, like murder or sexual assault, the average person will feel extremely bad feelings toward you, even moving to hatred and contempt. And they will treat you consistent with that assessment of you being the person worthy of hatred and contempt. That is fundamentally what defamation is about. When you associate a person with one of those horrible behaviors, the public is going to treat that person in accord with that assessment of them engaging in that horrible behavior. Sexual assault ranges way up there with murder, so whenever someone is associated with that sort of behavior, their reputation really suffers. That’s defamation at its highest level.

KC: How important is it for journalists to verify claims and take time on stories regarding matters of sexual assault and harrassment allegations?

JW: If you ask anybody on any street corner if they believe what they read in newspapers or what they see on television, I figure 99 out of 100 would say no, they don’t believe it. And 99 out of 100 would be lying. The news media creates reality for people. If you’re writing about a sexual assault, virtually nobody who reads that actually knows what happened. They will get their reality created by whatever is written in a newspaper or what’s on the television program. So journalists create reality even when they use words like “allegedly.” People sometimes don’t even see the word “allegedly.” Some people think the word “allegedly” is a way of saying, “He really did it, but I can’t say it because of the technicality of the law.” Before journalists even allege criminal activity, they need to make sure that there’s a substantial basis for linking some person to that horrible behavior by the word “allegedly.” Most often, journalists wait until there is a verified complaint. A verified complaint generally means the person who is complaining swears under oath essentially that the allegation is true. And in so swearing, that person puts his or her reputation on the line just as it puts the reputation of the person they are accusing on the line. It’s one of the ways that they assure that people don’t make unfounded accusations because you would be exposed as someone who might not be telling the truth. 

KC: We aim to empower voices or share voices that need to be heard. How can we do that with the legal barriers?

JW: These are legal and ethical barriers. We all want to help and support the victims of crime. But think about what you are doing to a person who is accused of doing a crime but didn’t do it. You have no way of knowing. Even if down the road you point out that the person who was identified with the bad behavior was later cleared, you really can’t clear him. People will sometimes see that as, “Oh, he got away with it.” Some people will say, “Well where there’s smoke, there must have been some fire there as well.” So, you can report that allegations were made, but you’d be going down the wrong path if you indicated who these unverified allegations were made against, unless you had something really solid backing you up, and I would say you would need a verified court or police complaint to that effect. And even then, say not that this person did it but that a complaint has been sworn out, alleging that this person did it.

kcarolan@theeagleonline.com

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