The year we get our ethical houses in order

“No longer should reporters and editors take police narratives as the gospel truth, or the only side of a story that should get reported.”

Journalism ended 2014 with a dark cloud hanging over the industry’s head (i.e. Rolling Stone’s campus rape report), and here we are ending 2015 the very same way. The biggest challenge the news industry faces in 2016 is the continued erosion of credibility and trust with users, especially millennials and diverse audiences, the very growing market segments news organizations need to engage in order to survive.

tracie-powellFrom CNN’s description of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray as the son of an “illiterate heroin addict,” to the snail-like, often schizophrenic way in which journalists respond to political figures like Donald Trump, ethical standards appear to be so fluid these days that journalists don’t seem to know what the standards are. So how can we expect audiences to understand?

The (Charleston) Post and Courier, which was celebrated far and wide by other journalists for its coverage of the police shooting death of Walter Scott initially only reported the one-sided narrative by the police officer now charged with murder. It wasn’t until a citizen’s cellphone footage of that shooting surfaced that the public got to learn what really happened (footage that was sent to The New York Times, not the hometown newspaper). It was easy for The Post and Courier to get the coverage right, after the fact.

Just this month, audiences got to see journalists storm into the apartment of a couple accused of killing 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. To make matters worse, some aired the couple’s prayer rug (no relevance whatsoever, as many Muslims have prayer rugs in their homes) and broadcast private details about the suspects, including baby pictures, Social Security numbers, and addresses.

One of the primary tenets of journalistic ethical codes is to do no harm, but the reckless reporting in these examples did exactly that. In San Bernardino, journalists’ actions invited vigilantism, illustrated the media’s tendency to dehumanize Muslims and other people of color, and completely ignored the safety and rights of neighbors and family members. In Charleston, only reporting the police narrative shows how journalists perpetuate stereotypes and contribute to the spread of erroneous information.

It’s yet another reason why journalists are now trusted less than lawyers and car salesmen.

Starting in 2016, U.S. journalists can specifically start fixing this problem by changing the way they cover crime. No longer should reporters and editors take police narratives as the gospel truth, or the only side of a story that should get reported. Journalists should not only be more skeptical of people in authority, but also better manage their beats — and their time — so that they can cultivate sources in the community outside the halls of power.

More broadly, if journalistic ethics continue to slip, news organizations can write off ever engaging with growing audiences. It doesn’t matter how much content they post on Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter — if users don’t trust journalists, they won’t buy what news outlets are selling. Journalists must also do a better job holding one another accountable, the way The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald recently did on CNN. Finally, journalists in 2016 must figure out who they want to be, and who they want to serve. If journalists’ jobs are to appeal to the most prurient elements in society, then fine — own that and stop pretending to be neutral arbiters of the truth. But if journalists’ jobs are to provide measured, thoughtful information and to engage with increasingly diverse audiences, then this is the year they must rethink their ethical standing.

Tracie Powell is founder of All Digitocracy and a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.