How to report the facts when sources ask for privacy?

(Jay Wennington/ Unsplash)

(Jay Wennington/Unsplash)

For an industry that serves as an influential channel of information, journalism still needs to tighten its laces and make vigorous strides when it comes to stories that focus on marginalized groups.

Recently our masthead congregated for a necessary presentation on how we as journalists can do a better job reporting stories that focus on the experiences of people who belong to marginalized groups.

Of course, the best stories we write are well rounded and backed with a wealth of information and research. However, there are times when sources close to the issue being reported on don’t want to speak to the media.

A journalist’s duty is to be the storytellers of their community or nation. So what happens when groups at the centre of legitimate news events claim their right to space, as we saw recently at the University of Missouri?

After years of racial tension and incidents on campus, graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike on Nov. 2. Butler starved himself while calling for the immediate resignation of the university’s president Tim Wolfe.

The strike rapidly gained support and, just three days later, students, staff and faculty members staged a walkout to display solidarity with Butler. Soon after, the school’s entire football team joined the group, refusing to play until Wolfe stepped down. Wolfe resigned shortly after, on Nov. 9.

Prior to his resignation, protesters set up tents on the school’s quad, claiming the area as a safe space and asking reporters not to infringe upon it. Journalists with cameras were blocked from taking pictures, and their first amendment rights to be at the site of the events were bluntly ignored by protesters demanding privacy.

This sparks the conversation of freedom of the press. What happens to the news when critical pieces of important stories are unattainable to journalists?

Yes, it’s vital that serious issues such as racism on campus are still reported on, but extreme sensitivity towards the marginalized group in question must be employed. Were reporters’ rights being ignored, or were the pleas for privacy by protesters the ones not being heard? Although both are true, if a marginalized group is asking for a safe space and no interviews, journalists would be right to respect that.

It’s necessary that articles written about situations like the one at the University of Missouri stick to the solid facts. Journalists must attempt to interview outside sources that understand the experience of the marginalized groups in order to still write an effective story. This is imperative, as a lack of understanding and regard can cause distrust amongst marginalized groups, as the media can represent the status quo, which might include institutionalized racism.

Depending on the journalist, some sources could possibly have the option to have their quotes read back to them so they could be assured they are comfortable with their story.

Although not all reporters are willing to provide these options, working to rebuild trust can open up a dialogue between marginalized communities and journalists. It is important that we as reporters work to bridge the gap of distrust between our sources and our profession in order to produce effective journalism.

A reporter would never write a story on a successful company without doing thorough background research and interviews with people that have insider knowledge about the company. So why should other subjects be any different?

The unfortunate truth remains, it’s not the news organizations that are harmed by lazy stories, but the communities simply looking for a way to help their often-muffled voices be heard.

This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 25, 2015.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five × five =

Read previous post:
Jackson and Yousefian getting married at city hall. Courtesy Samatha Jackson
Ryerson Lifeline Syria halfway to goal with more than $1 million received

Ryerson Lifeline Syria and other universities have reached the halfway goal mark to sponsor 75 refugee families to Canada.

Close