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May 8, 2019, 10:45 a.m.

“Why should I tell you?” A new guide aims to make reporting on communities less “extractive”

“Journalists love to deceive ourselves about how important our work is because it makes us feel better about doing sometimes morally ambiguous things.”

“Extractive” is a tough word. “Extractive” evokes strip mining and mountaintop removal, age-old resources being burned for short-lived gains. It’s dirty work, in multiple senses of the term; the nature of “extraction” is that you’re taking something that doesn’t want to be taken.

So some journalists may not take kindly to the idea that their work is extractive — and that it often should be less so.

But that’s the argument put forth by a new guide published by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. It’s titled “Why Should I Tell You? A Guide to Less Extractive Reporting” and it’s by Natalie Yahr, a journalist and current fellow at the center. This is from her intro:

I’m still early in my journalism career, but I’ve already encountered a number of situations that have made me question the role journalists should play as they cover people who are in some way suffering…

With this guide, I aim to help journalists navigate the ethical dilemmas they encounter as they interview people who have experienced harm. While there are numerous practical guides on such interviewing, especially on trauma journalism, I have yet to find a guide that explores the deeper ethical questions of what conditions, if any, make such journalism morally justifiable and not purely extractive or voyeuristic. I’ve also encountered little public record of journalists discussing these ethical questions though I am confident that such conversations happen, whether at conferences or in private.

This guide aims to bring those conversations to the wider public so that journalists and non-journalists alike can see how some of us are thinking through these questions and trying new approaches in search of a more mutually beneficial journalism.

There’s that “extractive” again. Not to get all Janet Malcolm on you1, but I think most reflective journalists would acknowledge they’ve either gotten close to that line or crossed it at some point in their careers.

While the Internet has shifted some of the structural dynamics of journalism — a mistreated source can now take to social media to present their side, for instance — most non-professional subjects of reporting still experience a huge imbalance of power in the relationship.

Many of the “rules” Yahr proposes may seem obvious — “make sure your source knows what to expect,” “don’t mislead or confuse sources (even with the best of intentions)” — but listing them out makes it easier to apply them in the day-to-day rush of reporting. Here are a few other highlights from Yahr’s guide, several of which I think might provoke interesting and useful debates among reasonable people:

A few things came up every time I interviewed a journalist for this project. The first was the importance of making sure the source knows what they’re getting into by talking to a reporter. Journalist after journalist told me that when they interview people who aren’t used to working with the media, they’re ethically required to do more than just let the person know they’re on the record.

He says that each time a source tells him something that could be used to identify or incriminate them, he’ll ask again, “Are you sure you want to tell me that?” In this way, he reminds the source of the risks and allows them to decide what to share and withhold.

“Journalists love to deceive ourselves about how important our work is because it makes us feel better about doing sometimes morally ambiguous things…I think journalists have a self-interest in telling ourselves that our story is going to make a difference, and so where I draw the line is telling someone else that.”

“It is a fact, I think, that these people expect something from you, and they really think that if you are from Univision, you can change the world and you can help them and give them money, and you can do a lot of things, and you can put their case on TV and everything is going to change. And I think you have to be really, really honest with them and tell them that you cannot promise anything like that, and if that happens, that is like an exceptional situation.”

“Sometimes I’ll have to remind them that we are not an advocacy organization. I am not lobbying in Congress on the behalf of veterans, and I am not some advocate lawyer that’s gonna go off and advocate for veterans at the VA. We’re gonna write stories, and we’re gonna try to expose issues, and we need the help of veterans to expose those issues…And so I have to remind people that I am a reporter, I am a journalist, and we are looking for the truth. I guess we could be advocates for the truth, if anything…but we are not advocates for veterans.

“I think it’s disingenuous to say, even at the most traditional news outlet, that there’s absolutely zero hope or expectation that doing investigative reporting is going to lead to [something]…The Chicago Tribune didn’t invest years in covering an inequitable property tax assessment system just to do it… If you discover that police are wrongly arresting black people just to increase their numbers — which is what’s happened in Florida in this community outside of Miami — you don’t do it just to do it. You do it because it’s wrong and it shouldn’t happen. And if I were to do that story, I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s definitely not what’s happening at the moment.”

“Kids should not be sexually abused when they’re wards of the state in the hospital. That’s wrong…And so you do stories hoping that these kids will get put into safer places. And I think it’s OK to say that out loud: ‘I don’t want kids to be sexually harmed.’ Right? Who can argue with that?…There’s something wrong with you if you think you can’t take that position. You can take the position of saying, ‘Children should not be harmed.’ You can take the position of saying, ‘People should not be wrongfully arrested.’”

Once we get what we need from a source — an interview, a document, a photo — it’s not long before we’re on to the next source, and soon, the next story. It takes conscious effort to follow up, and it’s not always clear when or how we should…“I try not to have a transactional relationship.”

“Even in documentary films, you can’t pay your characters. I know why that exists, but I find it so hard because people are offering something. They’re offering time, and if your documentary is about somebody’s struggle, you know they’re going through a hard time, that they’re struggling. So how can we shift the assumption that just because we’re offering someone compensation for their time [means] that we’re having them say the things we want them to say? Can we just trust somebody’s story? I think there’s a lot of unlearning and relearning in those questions. In both film and journalism worlds, we have to take deep looks at why those things exist.”

We wanted people to know in Spanish too because so many Latino families are connected to immigrants and maybe immigrants who’ve gone through the [immigrant youth shelter] system. And so to get to that audience, we translate the stories, which makes it easier for people to consume them. But what’s even more valuable is we try to get the stories out in their own language by my going on TV and radio…for little quick bites.

It’s not like a 5,000-word story… but it’s more powerful in that it’s seen by more people. People like my mom. My mom will never read my stories. My mom will never read my stories in English or in Spanish. It’s just too dense. [Laughs] But she will watch TV and she’ll see a two-minute piece with some interview with me and some B-roll and some contact. And I think it’s a good starting point to get people aware…So they don’t have to commit to reading the whole damn thing.

Ruth Palmer, an assistant professor of communications at Spain’s IE University and a past Nieman Lab contributor, covered some related ground from an academic perspective in her 2017 book Becoming the News: How Ordinary People Respond to the Media Spotlight, which presented a fairly dark vision of what it can be like to be on the other side of a story. As she put it here:

…talking to journalists has always been risky, inconvenient, and potentially traumatic for private citizens. There are benefits, too, of course — otherwise, no one would do it. But as the media landscape changes, so do the consequences of being named in the news. On balance, the risks have grown more than the benefits in recent years…

Many of the costs of becoming a news subject today actually predate the Internet. Talking to journalists takes time, energy, and a willingness to be in the spotlight. Those can be hard to muster when you’re reeling from life-altering events. And there’s always the chance news coverage will be unflattering, inaccurate, or damaging.

But the loss of privacy and reputational risks to news subjects are greater now than in the past, and getting worse. Search algorithms reward the authority of established news outlets, so even a brief news mention can completely reshape a person’s online reputation. Think it’s hard to hide those naked pictures in your search results? Try hiding a mainstream news article that features you…

People named in controversial or morally loaded news stories also risk getting a lot of negative online feedback, which can easily spill over into offline harassment. Those effects are likely to get worse in a hyperpolarized political climate, and will disproportionately be directed at women and people of color who come forward to express their views. Almost all of the female voters I have interviewed who spoke to the press last year experienced some form of harassment afterward, ranging from insulting social media messages to threatening calls and letters.

Think about that: The mere act of a woman being quoted by a reporter about a controversial topic — in this case, the 2016 Trump/Clinton election — generated harassment in “almost all” cases.

As I read through Yahr’s guide, I was reminded of all the debates over college admissions. On one hand, you have the frequent opposition to affirmative action for disadvantaged groups; on the other, there’s the general acquiescence to the idea that many advantaged groups — the children of alumni, the children of donors, those who play sports found almost entirely in wealthier communities — get a thumb (or lots of thumbs) on the scale.

Maybe Aunt Becky is changing that, who knows. But there can be a similar dynamic in journalism. Sources who have structural power — say, someone a reporter knows she’ll have to come back to often on her beat, or someone of enough interest that they can mete out interviews to journalists our outlets as they wish — can often get reporters to accept some form of negotiation over the exchange. (“He wants to talk, but only about X.” “She’ll answer questions, but only over email.”) But for sources who don’t have that power — or who don’t know enough about how journalism works to use that power — the reporting process can feel, well, extractive. Maybe being more conscious of our role in that exchange can help build a more renewable resource — trust.

Rendering of an interrogation room by Filip Spasev used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” From The Journalist and the Murderer (1991) and this New Yorker piece in 1989. []
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     May 8, 2019, 10:45 a.m.
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