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When Journalism is Causing Unintentional Harm

Written by on September 12, 2017

As a media analyst, I spend a lot of time looking at how the media industry is evolving in order to spot trends that either harm or help our future.

But over the past many years, I have noticed five key problems that are increasingly damaging not just the media's role in society, but society itself.

These problems are:

  • Revealing victims of harassment, which leads to even more harassment
  • Media doxxing
  • Being fooled into covering the wrong focus
  • He said, she said... for things that aren't equal
  • Giving a voice to people who already dominate all voices

Each one of these problems cause real harm to our society, but in the media we are spending more and more time doing these things.

Let me explain each one, and let's start with the simplest problem to solve.

Revealing victims of harassment, which leads to even more harassment

One of the scary things about the internet is how easy it is for people to harass each other without consequences. We have all been victims of this, some more than others (especially women). We have all been forced to block people, or even report people for abuse.

The problem, however, is that the more we talk about it, the worse it gets.

This is because most of this harassment is done by a very small group of people, who become more active and gain more popularity the more you antagonize them.

This is why we often say "don't feed the trolls".

The problem here is that, as journalists, we always cover the victims of harassment by making the public aware of them and why they are suffering.

Usually, highlighting victims who need our help is a good thing.

For instance, during a natural disaster, like Hurricane Harvey, the media covered all the victims of the devastating flooding. And while not everyone was pleased, the effect was generally good because it encouraged people to feel compassion for the victims, which increased the level of donations, public support, and other very positive actions.

In other words, pointing out who the victims are usually drives a positive public response.

It's the same with most types of crime. For instance, if a local bicycle shop has a number of bikes stolen, as journalists we will write our story, detailing what happened, what shop was stolen from, and with a sympathetic interview with the owner.

Again, the outcome is positive, because it makes the public feel sorry for this shop and its owner, which in turn results in a level of public support.

However, when it comes to harassment, this is not how the world works. Instead, what we see is something very different.

If we look at the world before a news story about harassment appears, we will find that a very small group of people are harassing someone, but most people don't know about it.

When we then cover this story, point out who the victim is, and explain the nature of the harassment, the result is usually something like this:

Notice that a lot of the people who weren't aware have now come out against the harassment (which is good), but also notice that the share of people doing the harassment has now more than doubled.

The result is that the person being harassed is now facing even more harassment. So, while the story was important in making people aware of an issue, the way we are covering it made the problem twice as bad for the actual people involved.

This is a terrible outcome. And if we look at the trend, we have seen this exact pattern over the past several years.

Today, far more people are aware and against harassment than ever before, but at the same time, the level of harassment is growing each day.

So, instead of solving the problem, our journalism is just polarizing the issue, which actually makes the problem worse.

This is a big problem, and as journalists we have a responsibility to change this. Because, right now, we are fueling the problem.

Ask any person facing harassment what they feel about this.

The absolute last thing they want is to have a journalist write about them, because they know that as soon as that story starts to spread, the harassment will also explode.

So, how do we change this?

One way would be to think about victims of harassment the same way you think about newspaper sources. In the media industry we have a long and powerful history of protecting our sources from harm, by making sure that nothing in our reporting would reveal their identity.

We need to take the same approach when covering victims of harassment. Treat them as a source and apply the same journalistic tactics to tell the story without ever revealing who they are.

This way, we can address the problem, but the harassers wouldn't know who to target.

The problem with media doxxing

Doxxing is when people start to 'out' other people online, which often results in a type of online witch hunt, and more harassment. And we have seen many very scary cases of this.

For instance, when online communities try to identify people in relation to terror attacks, and identify the wrong person, the threats to that person's life are suddenly very real and highly problematic.

In the media, we do this every single day. It is exceptionally common for journalists to identify people as part of a story, often without really knowing how they are involved.

For instance, there was the case of an American who was wrongly identified and then outed by the press as the jogger who pushed a woman in front of a bus.

In the past, this wouldn't be that big a deal, but in the digital world, outing someone suddenly has massive implications for that person's life, and often leads to them getting harassed.

One particularly bad example of this is what happened with the story around gender equality at Google. As you probably know, a male Google employee recently posted an internal memo at Google that was extremely offensive to women and their role in tech. And from a news perspective, it was a story that tied into the already massive problem with sexism in Silicon Valley.

As journalists, we obviously covered this story, but it didn't take long before we started trying to identify who the author of this memo was, and then outing him online.

The problem with this is that we had no journalistic justification for doing this. Google has thousands of employees, of which only one happened to write this memo. And the real story here was the sexist sub-culture, not who this one person might be.

This person was obviously an idiot, but, by outing him the way we did, we turned him into a hero for the alt-right community.

What was worse was that as soon as we, in the media, started outing this Google employee, the alt-right community started retaliating. And in turn they started outing other Google employees, publishing their personal information and history online, which resulted in direct threats and harassment.

It got so bad that Google's CEO had to cancel an internal Town Hall meeting because he feared for their safety.

As he wrote:

Sorry for the late notice but we are going to cancel today's Town Hall.

We had hoped to have a frank, open discussion today as we always do to bring us together and move forward. But our Dory questions appeared externally this afternoon, and on some websites Googlers are now being named personally. Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be 'outed' publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.

Think about how incredibly damaging this is, and it all started because we, the media, outed a Google employee.

Now, "hold on", you say. "Wouldn't this have happened anyway? If we hadn't done this, wouldn't someone else have done it, and wouldn't the alt-right community have attacked regardless?"

Well... yes, maybe. But that's not an excuse!

In the media industry, we have a responsibility to not doxx members of the public unless there is a really good reason to do so, while considering the implications. In this case, the identity of the Google employee wasn't relevant for the story.

So, stop the media doxxing. It's not helping anyone, and often only makes things worse.

Being fooled into covering the wrong focus

Another very big problem that we come across quite frequently, is how the media is being fooled into reporting the wrong focus. This is due to the media's false sense of neutrality.

We see this most often with the alt-right community, who are constantly switching the meaning of words to suit their needs. For instance, they often refer to white Christian men as being the 'victims of gender inequality'; they refer to criticism of their own bigotry and hatred as an attack on 'conservative viewpoints'; and they refer to 'free speech' when they are directly attacking and harassing others.

All of this in itself is incredibly damaging.

But the real damage happens when we in the media start to merely report these twisted words. Here is one example:

You see the problem here?

The problem is that we allow the extremists to define the meaning of the words that we use, and with that they are able to disguise their real actions.

So, a white supremacist is suddenly not engaging in hate speech and harassment, but is exercising his right to 'free speech'. An engineer who decides to act offensively towards all his female co-workers is suddenly the victim of political repressions. And white men become the victims when women aren't paid as much as them.

The reason this problem exists is because as journalists we often simply report the story first, by merely conveying what someone said. Only later do we start to think about it, fact-check it, or even question it.

But as anyone working in the media knows, the initial 'outraged' article will always get about 20 times as much traffic as the more thoughtful fact-checked response posted later. And, as a result, we help these people mislead the public.

This is another example of direct damage to the public that we facilitate.

But, "wait-a-minute", I hear some of you say. "As journalists we need to stay neutral and separate from the story."

No, this is not true.

The role of a journalist is to serve the public with accurate and truthful information, as defined in the Journalistic Code of Ethics. Merely reporting a story, especially one that ends up twisting the meaning of words and misleading the public, is not journalism.

What any journalist should do is what we saw over at MSNBC last month. Here, a person was being interviewed and directly trying to mislead the public. And instead of just listening to this nonsense, the two journalists at MSNBC stepped in and used their expertise and insight to prevent the public from being misinformed, right there in the middle of the interview .

Here is a link to the video.

I want every single journalist to act this way, with every story. Because we can see how damaging 'just reporting' is for our society today.

And it's not just in the US or about the alt-right. This is happening across the spectrum.

For instance, in my country, there recently was a study that looked at the perception of crime, and about 80% of the public believed the wrong thing.

80%!

This is crazy!

So clearly, just reporting the news is not the right focus. We need to rediscover our purpose, because this is extremely harmful to all of us.

He said, she said... for things that aren't equal

...and...

Giving a voice to people who already dominate all voices

Finally, we need to look at the two remaining problems that cause us to do harm to our readers. And, again, it's about how we cover things.

One of the issues is that very problematic focus in the media of 'he said, she said' style of reporting, which links to what I said earlier about 'just reporting' things.

The main problem is that, when covering a story, in the name of balance, we often interview or report things from both sides, as if they were equal.

For instance, you will see a news story about climate problems that 'balances' a renowned climate scientist, with the opinions of a climate denialist. And the article is written in such a way that each side is presented as equally valid views.

But think about what's happening here.

The climate scientist is somebody who has spent a very long time researching this, gathering data, doing careful analysis, publishing the result, having it peer-reviewed, etc.

In other words, the scientists have followed the scientific method.

Meanwhile, the denialist is a pundit, somebody who has an opinion about climate science, but has put no real effort into studying the data (except occasionally looking for edge cases that could support their views).

Placing these two people into the same article in the name of balance is not just insane, but also incredibly damaging to our society. There is nothing balanced about it.

But it actually gets worse than this, because when we look at the coverage overall, we have seen a dramatic increase in the use of pundits in the media, as well an increase in focus on the opinion/editorial sections.

Many newspapers now put opinions on the front page of their sites, as if people's personal feelings have just as much weight as actual data, facts, etc.

And we very clearly see the damage this is causing. The public are getting more and more misinformed to a point where even the simplest and clearest data is being disputed by pundits who couldn't be bothered to do real analysis.

This is made even worse because the media also has the 'many sides' problem.

After the white supremacist hate march in Charlottesville, USA, that resulted in a terrorist incident and several cases of hate-related violence, President Trump was condemned for saying that "many sides" were to blame for this.

And we covered this extensively in the media.

The reason for this is obvious. You cannot take racists and anti-racists and claim that they are equals.

To make things worse, about 2 seconds after this story was over, the media started doing its own version of 'many sides'. Like this story in the Guardian.

This is insane.

Arguably, the article discusses free speech, but the problem is again that they wrote this for the sake of balance, yet the entire premise of the article is untrue.

The biggest problem is that the Guardian claims that 'the far right is losing its ability to speak freely online'. This is nonsense.

Because of the internet, the far right is absolutely dominating public awareness in ways that far exceed their own size. Statistically, there are not actually that many far-right people in the world, but the combination of online publishing, media coverage, and a ton of other things, has allowed them to completely dominate every discussion.

They are not losing anything.

We, in the media, still don't understand the world we live in today.

It's true that in the past, the newspapers were people's window to the world, and offering people a space to comment (with reader letters, etc) was an important part of the public service newspapers provided.

But we don't live in this world anymore. Today, the internet has allowed the extremists of our world to get a far bigger and more dominant voice by themselves. So, when we in the media give them even more exposure (often to an extreme degree), we are not providing a public service or providing balance. We are giving people who are already dominating, a way to dominate even more.

Here is another example, where a national morning TV program decides to give even more voice to a homophobe:

And they even asked "any thoughts" to 'create debate', to which people responded:

  • "That putting them on TV may result in gay kids killing themselves or being harassed by their families. Can you imagine a TV show in which gay people discussed curing people of their heterosexuality?"
  • "Only that this massively undermines the credibility of your show and other guests."
  • "Thoughts? How about you don't give this kind of hate the airtime? No doubt Piers will bathe in this like the venom he spouts."
  • "Why would anyone give such hate based nonsense airtime? It is not news and it is not fact. There is no public interest in promoting this."
  • "Thoughts? Don't give him air time. Countless lives have been lost through suicide. Being gay isn't a choice, being ignorant is."
  • "My thought is that maybe you could have a different guest and talk about something else."
  • "You shouldn't be giving this person airtime."
  • "You are giving publicity to a man that claims he can eradicate a minority group, as we eat our cornflakes. Take a moment to consider this..."
  • "Any thoughts? Why are you giving this dangerous and damaging practice airtime?"
  • "Are you serious? You're giving this nasty, dangerous shit a platform @gmb? You're as bad as he is."
  • "Yes. Why are you allowing homophobic views on your programme? Completely unjustifiable."
  • "My thoughts are that this isn't up for debate. Disgraceful."
  • "Is this even a sensible journalist thing to do? Will someone be there to call him out? Shame on you!"
  • "So you're saying you don't have a single gay man on your production team who told you this was a terrible idea? Or you just ignored them?"

It ties back to this illustration that I made earlier this year:

This is what the media is doing today with its 'many sides balance' reporting, and debates. We are focusing so much on people who are already dominating everything, that the concern of the normal person is being completely drowned out.

You are not creating balance by giving more voice to the extremists of our world. The people who are actually losing their ability to speak and get heard online are the normal people. People like you and me.

It's the same with immigration. We never hear the 'normal', real story about this anymore.

Or look at the coverage of Muslims. There are millions of Muslims in the world who are just normal people like everyone else. They're not planting bombs, they're holding down jobs and raising families. And yet, because every article about Muslims in the media is about the most extremist elements, we are now seeing a world that has no resemblance to reality.

Ask any of the millions of moderate (non-extremist) Muslims if they can identify with the way society now thinks of them. This whole 'debate' has been so unbalanced, twisted, and distorted that real life is no longer represented.

We did this. We... the media.

Obviously, some media sites are worse than others, but every newspaper is essentially guilty of this. And we keep giving even more voice to the pundits 'for the sake of balance'.

The reality is that, in a perfect world, this is something none of us should ever think about. I'm reminded of Morgan Freeman when he was asked about Black History Month on 60 Minutes.

---

Wallace: Black History Month, you find ...

Freeman: Ridiculous.

Wallace: Why?

Freeman: You're going to relegate my history to a month?

Wallace: Come on.

Freeman: What do you do with yours? Which month is White History Month? Come on, tell me.

Wallace: I'm Jewish.

Freeman: OK. Which month is Jewish History Month?

Wallace: There isn't one.

Freeman: Why not? Do you want one?

Wallace: No, no.

Freeman: I don't either. I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.

Wallace: How are we going to get rid of racism until...?

Freeman: Stop talking about it. I'm going to stop calling you a white man. And I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You're not going to say, "I know this white guy named Mike Wallace." Hear what I'm saying?

---

This is what balance is actually about, and this is what we have lost.

In the past, reading the news wasn't about agreeing or disagreeing with extremists. We read the news to be informed, and expected a newspaper to stay neutral. We expected them to focus 100% on being able to provide trustworthy news.

But today, with pundits and extremists, our 'many sides' coverage, and all the other problems mentioned here, news is no longer balanced or neutral. When you read newspapers today, you end up believing the wrong thing.

This is not good.

Regaining our balance

So, what I want newspapers to do is to realize just how much damage we are doing through the way we work. We might not be the ones starting, or creating the damage, but we have a big part in facilitating and enabling it.

We also have to realize that we no longer live in a vacuum, because people now have so many other ways to publish and dominate the public discussions. This means that it's no longer our job to just 'bring every side to the table', because some of these sides might already be there, elbowing others out.

Essentially, I want newspapers to stop being opinion based and start becoming evidence based.

A simple example is to look at crime.

I want every single journalist to look at the actual data and crime statistics, and then compare that to what people think is happening.

I then want you to set it as your editorial goal to fix any inconsistencies between these results.

For instance, in this case we see that what is really happening is that crime is going down, but the public think that it's going up by quite a bit.

So, define it as your editorial goal to fix this, so that when you do the exact same study in late-2018, you will end up with this (for your own readers):

This is what journalism should be about. In the past, it was our role to bring people the news, but now that role has evolved into something far more important.

Today the primary purpose of a newspaper is to be the voice of reality, and we need to actively use that voice to make sure people end up being more informed about what is really happening.

Obviously, many newspapers are not going to do this. News sites like Fox News, Breitbart, Daily Mail, and many others, have long stopped acting like journalists and are now in the business of 'engaging' their audiences.

But I didn't write this article for them, because they are not going to listen anyway. I wrote this article for you, because this is what is going to make you stand out in the future.

This is why I'm fascinated by new media sites like The Correspondent, or local news sites like the Texas Tribune. They are not perfect, but they have a much better editorial purpose because they are not just thinking about publishing a package of reported stories.

And it's clearly working for them.

So... let's rethink our approach to minimize the unintentional damage that we are clearly causing to our communities. And let's also start to define it as our goal to be known for real journalism, rather than what we see in so many places today.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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