Thursday, September 15, 2005

Journalism, ethics, racism and aspiring pundits

An aspiring Ann Coulter named Jillian Bandes (pictured) published a doozy of a column in The Daily Tar Heel last week; she led with " I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport."

No one should be terribly surprised that the UNC Muslim Students Association and lots of other people went ballistic. The opinion editor fired Bandes, not for expressing her noxious opinion in favor of racial profiling (which he disagree with), but for misusing quotes she strung together from various Islamic figures on campus to make it seem that they supported racial profiling.

Here's how editor Chris Colleta explained his action:

I asked Bandes as I read her column whether the quotes were accurate; whether they were fair; whether they truly represented the feelings of the people quoted.

She said yes.

Now, I don’t know if Bandes simply misrepresented herself or whether she intentionally fudged things when she talked to her sources. But either way, when I talked to all three of them Wednesday, they told me they felt not only lied to, but betrayed.

… none of them thought Bandes would use their words the way she did — callously and without regard for their actual meaning.

In other words, their quotes were wrong, even if the words were correct. They were used recklessly and thoughtlessly.

Let's get that again:"Their quotes were wrong, even if the words were correct." That seems to me a higher standard than I expect from journalists, but perhaps a right one. Colleta is saying that journalists must not misrepresent the intentions of people they interview, even if perhaps their literal words might allow some fuzziness about their meaning.

The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, "Seek Truth and Report It," rather surprisingly, contains nothing that directly addresses this issue of using quotations in such a way that they misrepresent the speakers. Perhaps they consider this conduct such a horrible fault as to be unthinkable. Yet sources are always complaining about being misquoted. Perhaps the real problem is that writers too often don't understand what their sources meant, so their use of quotes is false, because they just don't get it.

* * *

Unlike the editor who fired her, I do think Bandes' column was racist on its face. Consider this:

Four years and two days ago, we stood somewhere between apathy and ignorance. Sure, there were heinous acts of terrorism being committed in far-away lands, and sure, there was always the threat that some psychopath might do something.

After all, we’re the generation of Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber and Columbine. The news was littered with coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nerve gas on Japanese subways and terror in the Balkans.. . .

You can debate a lot of things about post-9/11 foreign policy, but one thing you can’t debate is that taking out terrorists — or blatant human-rights violators — is a good thing.

You also can’t debate that of the 19 hijackers on those planes, all 19 were Arab.

And you can’t debate that while most Arabs are not terrorists, sadly, most terrorists are indeed Arab.

Huh? This is internally inconsistent balderdash. She lists a lot of horrible people who've done terrible things, none of them Arabs (except those Palestinians) -- and then insists most terrorists are Arabs. Such contradictory assertions, rooted in bigotry, are the essence of racism.

The Society of Professional Journalists does speak out against racism in reporting. They urge: "Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status." That ought to cover the above.

Those of us who blog take it on ourselves to be journalists. This nasty little episode reminds me that even though I am writing opinion, I owe it to the people I comment on not to intentionally misconstrue their words. That ought to be obvious, but I don't regret the reminder.

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