How much should journalists care about the impact of their news?

How much should journalists care about the impact of their news?

[Logos from WSJ and Youtube]

You may have heard about the YouTube monetisation fiasco. If not, here are some examples of YouTubers talking about it.

In short, certain YouTube videos have been demonetised or blacklisted because advertisers are boycotting YouTube. Why are these advertisers doing this? Because of an article in the Wall Street Journal about an ad appearing on a video with hate speech in it.

Now, because of the paywall, I’ve been unable to read the full article, but that’s not really what I want to talk about. I want to use this issue as a stepping stone to discuss whether a news organisation should consider the impact of their article before posting it.

On the one hand, of course the news is supposed to impact the real world. Many politicians have had their careers ruined by scandals reported by newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal. The whole point of journalism is for reporters to keep important figures from continuing to screw people over. So is it fair to hate the Wall Street Journal because they posted something they thought was newsworthy and could have a negative effect on businesses?

This is not a simple question, as there isn’t a detailed code of ethics that every single journalist has agreed on. Some organisations, for instance, ban their journalists from using anonymous sources and even refuse to hide the identities of social media users, though others defend the use of these sources because it can not only give journalists more information but can also protect whistleblowers and victims of abuse. It’s easy to agree that victims of crime should be allowed to remain anonymous given the online hatred some may experience if their identities are revealed, but can this code of ethics be transferred to protecting YouTubers from having their livelihood taken away over the negative actions of a few political extremists?

This exaggeration of issues is a problem that can be seen in all news. A story about a terrorist killing dozens of people is juicier than a common illness killing more. Journalists have a sensationalist bias that can potentially make newsreaders believe that a problem is bigger than it actually is. However, just because this is common does not make it right.

The only conclusion I can draw from all of this controversy is that journalists should consider not whether their story could negatively impact on the people they write about but whether this risk is worth the reward of informing and bettering the public. I can’t tell the Wall Street Journal that they definitely got this balance right or wrong (again, there’s a paywall) but I do think that a story should be written if the people it negatively impacts deserve it, which is why watchdog journalism is used against corrupt politicians rather than abuse victims. Journalists need to consider who they’re writing about before they start writing.


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