The Need for Accountability in Journalism

Credit: Zoe Patterson

Credit: Zoe Patterson

An utterance of the phrase “free speech” in the modern-day United States typically elicits images of protests and think-pieces regarding bigoted and controversial campus speakers and safe spaces.  Typically, these discussions are not solely centered around the speakers or student facilitators of safe spaces themselves, but rather extend to the larger college communities and administrations that facilitate them.  Calls are either for a college to disinvite these bigoted speakers and allow for student safe spaces, or to do the exact opposite in the name of “free speech.”

While I am on the “don’t let bigots speak on campus and give marginalized students a safe space” side of the argument, I don’t intend to speak to those specific situations right now.  Rather, in this issue of college campus “free speech,” I see a connection to a question that extends not only to educational environments of all levels, but to the populace at large.  Like the college campus “free speech” issue, this also comes down to the roles and responsibilities of institutions.

Where do we, as journalists, editors, and all who work in the realm of media, come to the ethical point of no return in terms of what beliefs we choose to publish?

The New York Times, for example, has published multiple opinions that have spurred considerable backlash for expressing views unkind to marginalized groups.  Mayim Bialik, a cast member of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory”, penned a piece entitled “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World” where she places the onus of avoiding sexual assault on women by encouraging them to dress and act modestly, thus adding to the larger narrative of victim blaming ingrained in our toxic culture of sexual assault.  Bialik posits herself as wiser than other actresses in her dealings with men and indirectly blames survivors of sexual violence, writing, “I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”  Back in August, The New York Times also published a piece by James Kirchick, entitled “When Transgender Trumps Treachery” in which he attacks Chelsea Manning and implies that being transgender is a privilege that shelters one from punishment (i.e. asserting that liberals only like Manning because she’s trans).  Based upon the actual widespread legislative and cultural discrimination against the trans community, however, one can see that Kirchick’s “reality” of trans privilege doesn’t reflect actual reality at all.  

Obviously, we need to hold the writers of these pieces and other pieces like them accountable for their words -- everyone has responsibility for what they write.  However, these opinion pieces were not simply posted by their authors to a personal Facebook page or blog; rather, these were reviewed and approved by other staff members at the publication.  When we consider a work of writing and its impact, we must not only hold accountable the writer, but those involved in approving and publishing the work itself, just as we would hold a college accountable for inviting a certain speaker.

Speaking for myself, as both a writer and The Phoenix’s Opinions editor, I believe there is a point at which it is irresponsible to publish a piece, and that it when it reaches the point where it either condones or calls for violence towards a marginalized community.

Bialik’s piece, for example, adds fuel to the fires of an epidemic of sexual violence -- victim blaming only hurts survivors and puts others at higher risk of assault and harassment.  Kirchick both erases the violence and discrimination trans people already face and creates even more hostility towards trans people.  The words of Bialik and Kirchick push, respectively, misogynistic and transphobic views that, when spread on a substantive scale, put marginalized communities at an even greater risk for violence.

Publications as a whole might not condone every viewpoint they publish; however, to facilitate the spread of violent viewpoints is to be complicit.  Maybe one would like to showcase how ridiculous a bigoted belief is.  Simply publishing this belief, however, and providing no context, explanation of why this view is violent, or providing no space in the immediate vicinity of the piece for a response from a marginalized individual is naive.  If one’s goal is to expose a bigoted belief by giving a bigot a platform, consultation of individuals of the targeted group or identity should be substantially involved in the process.  

One cannot expect every reader to understand one’s intentions and not take the bigoted words as truth when one “exposes” it wholly uncontextualized.  One disrespects one’s readers when one passes off their actual lives and safety as simple, harmless debate topics for the most privileged of our society.  

In the end, the choice of which voices to publish lies with individual publications.  I believe in this choice; however, I also believe in my choice and the choice of other readers to criticize a publication, stop reading a publication, and stop giving money to a publication.  The First Amendment does not protect a publication from scorn or economic failure as a result of its editorial decisions.  I encourage readers to be conscious of how the publications they choose to read handle issues of bigotry and marginalization, and make their decisions accordingly.   

One of the reasons I am a writer is my love for words and language.  Language has immense power, for words are not simply sounds or ink on a page but forces that may drive one into action or spur one into tears.  Oftentimes, this power is a beautiful thing, but it is a power of which we must always be aware.  We must not just be mindful of the impact of our own words, but also the words of others to which we choose to give a platform.  It is up to individual publications to decide whether they want to give in to popular misinterpretation of the First Amendment and put safety at risk for the sake of debate, or to become a defender of justice and marginalized lives in the face of bigotry.

Zoe Patterson '20