Journalistic Integrity: Wherefore Art Thou?

When New York Times journalists Julie Bosman and Campbell Robertson took it upon themselves to publish Officer Darren Wilson’s marriage license and street address, the two sides of the Ferguson aisle lit up in unsurprisingly opposing viewpoints: some felt it was justice being served while others believed it was unquestionably wrong. And although it has been proven that the address shown on the marriage license was actually that of a local law firm and the street address didn’t include a house number, the fact remains that a pair of writers took measures to increase reader numbers at any price. In this case, the price could easily have been a police officer’s life.

In the days that followed, one particular question has appeared in my email inbox with unerring repetition: what has become of journalistic integrity? And, of course, there are those who want to know whether or not I believe the NYT writers were wrong. One of these questions is quite simple while the other requires a longer explanation, one that delves into areas that have nothing to do with Ferguson and everything to do with the direction society is currently heading in – in what I’d describe as a caution-to-the-wind tailspin.

First, the easy answer: yes, the writers were wrong. Although the street address didn’t include a house number, that street is actually onlWilson Licensey about two blocks long, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to narrow it down. And even though Officer Wilson no longer lived there, he had lived there not long before. Immediately following the shooting, Wilson wisely and quietly relocated for safety’s sake, an action that probably saved his life. There’s no way to know for sure whether or not the NYT writers believed the address they had was current, but one thing is for sure: the way the original post was worded as well as how the “retraction” was worded made it appear as though they did, indeed, believe they were giving away his current location. Sadly, I would not be surprised in the least if they’d divulged that information thinking it was up-to-date.

Editor’s Note: As of our date of publication, the NYT article linked in the first sentence above still includes the name of the street where Wilson and his girlfriend lived. While the site did retract the image of the marriage license (pictured), they neglected to fix the real issue at hand – the location where Wilson rested his head at night.

Shades of Gray

According to the Society of Professional Journalists, which is an organization considered to be a front runner in the industry, our ethics as writers should include the following premise: “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.” See that? Integrity is supposed to be the cornerstone of credibility; in the world of journalism, if you aren’t credible, you have nothing – or, at least, that’s how it used to work. Today it’s become a different story. Today, many writers simply run with the most salacious news and hope for a ridiculous number of page views, and the facts be damned. But it isn’t just journalists losing their integrity, it’s Americans at large.

Webster’s dictionary says integrity is the quality of “being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” In the world today, honesty is no longer treated as black and white but colored in shades of gray, not because things have changed so tremendously that the truth can no longer be seen and defined, but because people’s outlooks have changed to the point where they’d rather bend the truth to suit their own desires. In the case of the NYT writers, they decided to bend the truth – and the journalistic code of ethics – until they convinced themselves that publishing Officer Wilson’s address was in the public’s best interest. After all, they could reason, there’s a part of that same journalistic code that says it’s our job as journalists to provide “comprehensive accounts of events and issues.” But wait, was his address a necessary part of events? No, it was not. But they decided it was, because including it boosted their numbers.

Tit for Tat

In response to the unethical actions taken by the NYT writers, other writers took it upon themselves to publish the home addresses of the writers in a journalistic “eye for an eye” moment. There were so many writers, bloggers, and writer-wanna-be’s out there publishing the home addresses of the NYT writers that it’s rather hard to say where it started, and at this point it’s pretty much everywhere. And although thousands approved of the way the tables were turned on the numbers-seeking writers – and I, myself, fought to bite back a smile – that doesn’t mean it was the best way to handle the problem.

After her home address was published, writer Julie Bosman started receiving endless food deliveries at her house. And, of course, she started getting harassed and threatened. So what did she do? She began calling her local police department over, and over, and over, demanding police protection. Included in her litany of complaints were the unwanted food orders – which may be a juvenile method of revenge, but apparently it isn’t as juvenile as I thought, because Bosman seems just as bothered by the appearance of food as she is by the threats. Basically, she’s clogging up the phone lines of her local PD, which is, at the very least, eating up dispatcher’s time and displacing callers with actual emergencies. Surprising? No, but it is a little bit ironic. After all, she tried to give away the home address of a police officer, knowing full well such actions put his life at risk. But she cared more about her own numbers than the life of a police officer – an officer who could easily be any one of the officers she was then demanding offer her around-the-clock protection. Perhaps we need to supply Ms. Bosman with a dictionary, because she might want to look up these confusing “I” words: “integrity” and “irony.”

With this we’ve come full circle, in a way. The two NYT writers showed an utter disregard for Officer Darren Wilson’s safety when they published his street address. They were wrong. And what of the writers who published the journalists’ addresses? Were they wrong?

See the above paragraph regarding the fallout from publishing those home addresses. It’s causing a headache for the local PD, which is probably not something that was considered by those who spread the addresses around. Do you think they were wrong?

[quote_left]”We may never know which came first – the journalistic chicken or the societal egg – but one thing is for sure, as long as you support bad journalistic behavior, it will never stop.”[/quote_left]

Here’s what I’d like to see: the return of integrity in journalism. The lack of integrity that resulted in the publication of Officer Wilson’s address is just a symptom of a larger disease, and that disease is rampant dishonesty. For years I’ve taken care regarding which news outlets I trust to supply my news, and even then caution must be exercised. Although blind trust is absolutely never wise, there’s something to be said for the ability to at least read a news article without being forced to weigh each and every word for honesty. Ratings have come to mean more than anything else; ratings have become the altar mainstream media writers worship at. Honesty and integrity have been shoved aside for something else: power.

Abraham Lincoln said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” He forgot to mention that the fight to get power is a dangerous one as well. Our nation has become a place where the quest for power has become an all-encompassing obsession. When someone puts a desire for power above the value of another human being’s life – in this case the value of Officer Darren Wilson’s life – there is something so very wrong it cannot be put into words.

Someone recently mocked the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, and my response to him was that he clearly didn’t pay attention to the way the news works. There is power in the written word, far more than many people even begin to realize. And when those words are twisted to suit someone’s personal desires, that power twists as well.

Integrity must be brought back to journalism. Without it, the majority of so-called journalists are nothing but fiction writers. When there aren’t any consequences for unethical behavior – or, worse yet, when the consequences are actually a reward – those behaviors are only perpetuated. The downward spiral of journalism is indicative of the way society at large thinks and acts. You think the mainstream media is a mess? What about all the people that buy into it, share it, and spread it around? Better yet, which came first, the journalistic chicken or the societal egg?

Without our integrity, we are nothing. And if that means a large portion of the media has become empty and meaningless, so be it. It’s time there were real consequences for the reckless behavior of journalists, consequences far beyond their own addresses being published. Because the reality is the lives of those two journalists were not in danger; Officer Darren Wilson’s life is another story entirely. He was in real danger. Maybe next time Bosman and Robertson consider making this kind of information public they’ll remember their own fear, but somehow I don’t think it will work that way. The power payoff is already too great; more than likely they’ll both go looking for an even greater payoff down the road.

Journalists, your integrity matters; get it back. And to the public, we may never know which came first – the journalistic chicken or the societal egg – but one thing is for sure, as long as you support bad journalistic behavior, it will never stop. Integrity must return to journalism, it’s as simple as that. I do my part by working to maintain integrity in my own writing; it may be small, but it’s the part I can do, so I’m doing it. Integrity matters; it should be valued, and it should be fought for, whether you’re a writer or a reader.

Which came first?

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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