Hewa: Be a person first, a journalist second

“You’re exploiting me,” she said. “You’re trying to dig something out of me.” She didn’t hang up. Instead, there were the sounds of the key in her office door, her loud, shaky breathing.

I whispered an apology and ended the call.

I had been a Journalism student at Western for less than a year, but I was already used to feeling nervous as I planned my questions before an interview, or feeling elated during one when I heard the perfect quote. I was wholly unused to feeling ashamed for doing exactly what I was taught.

It had started innocuously: I had been calling to follow up on an interview my colleague and I had done for a story on London women in poverty. The initial interview had gone well – we’d even been thanked for working on the piece. So how did it end with a phone call during which I was accused of exploitation, even voyeurism?

As I turned to peers and professors for advice, I started to wonder – Is journalism exploitative?

As consumers of news, we read stories all the time that are intimate, to say the least. The Globe and Mail’s profiles of the victims of the recent van attack in Toronto are a perfect example; they are succinct, affecting portraits of people whose lives were brutally cut short.

It’s certainly not the first news story like this.

The Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April was another tragedy that prompted a slew of articles on victims and their families. But with those stories came “special live coverage” of the vigil held for the victims, cameras zooming in on tear-stained faces and empty eyes.

We’re told that the job of a journalist is to seek the truth. While that search is often glamorized as demanding tough questions of people in power, it also involves asking people with very little power – even over themselves – to reveal ugly, painful parts of their lives. As readers, we rarely think of the kinds of questions that have to be asked for profiles like the ones in the Globe. Were the reporters acting responsibly when they reached out to families for quotes, for stories, for pictures that would draw eyes to their site?

One possible way to escape this moral labyrinth is to look at intent. If what they wanted to do was not to encourage empathy for and awareness of a terrible crime, but rather to get as many clicks as possible, then it was immoral. But of course, we hope that journalists have loftier goals than that. In their book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel say that “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Its purpose, they say, is to “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

With the rise of ‘fake news’ and the fall in trust of media internationally, there have been many crucial conversations about journalism’s responsibility toward the truth. Kovach and Rosenstiel are joined by many others who have sketched a fairly good, clear picture of what ethical journalism should look like in macro – it is principled and rigorous in its search for that fickle mistress, the facts.

But what about journalism in micro? Those small interactions between journalists and their sources, and then between the stories their sources become and their readers. I think the search for the truth should, if not be tempered by, at least consider the humanity and privacy of the people who trust journalists with a glimpse into their lives.

Like most moral questions, the answer – if there is only one – certainly isn’t easy to find. But as an audience, we need to at least be talking about the kind of news we’re consuming. Is what we’re reading compassionate or parasitic? Is it building connections between disparate peoples or shining a spotlight on someone’s most vulnerable, painful moments? And are those two things mutually exclusive?

Tom Junod, an award-winning journalist who’s written profiles on rapists and stories on 9/11, once wrote that journalism is “an emotional job if you’re doing it right.” He was echoed by a professor who gave me the best – and simplest – advice following that terrible phone call.

Be a person first and a journalist second.

They’re words to live by in any career, and they hold true for readers of news as well. As consumers, our eyes are incredibly valuable. Maybe it’s important to know when to close them.

Nelanthi Hewa is a student in the Master of Media in Journalism & Communication program at Western. This essay won the Haak Saan Responsible Journalism Scholarship, established to promote and enhance social justice, peace and harmony, by encouraging highly responsible journalism.