Responsibility key when advocating in the media

This post was originally published on my JN 499 class blog at The University of Alabama, a course dealing with journalism ethics: https://uajn499.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/responsibility-key-when-advocating-in-the-media/

It was then later published on DoingEthicsInMedia.com, the website for the “Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications” textbook used for the course: http://www.doingethicsinmedia.com/wp/nfls-greg-hardy-photos-require-journalistic-responsibility-when-advocating/

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For many, the images were the final straw.

Eighteen months after Greg Hardy was arrested – and later convicted – on domestic violence charges, the photos showing the injuries he allegedly inflicted on former girlfriend Nicole Holder came to light.

In the 47 photos released by Deadspin last Friday, 45 show Holder bruised from her foot up to her chin, which she testified in July 2014 as Hardy’s doing.

And while it hardly came as a surprise to anyone who saw them, it just reached some people’s breaking point, including ESPN’s Wendi Nix.

Nix, who has covered the NFL for 14 years, issued one of the harshest critiques of Hardy to date during the latest edition of “Sunday NFL Countdown” this week. In a nearly two-minute long take on the matter, she not only expresses her disdain for the Dallas Cowboys player, but for Jerry Jones, the team’s owner and the man who has stood by his decision to sign the star defensive end this offseason despite his well-documented troubles.

Her message, a call to action on Cowboys’ sponsors to take a stand against Hardy’s place on the team, was reasonable, thoughtful and certainly well intentioned, but I question if it was her place to make such an opinion.

Why? Because of her blatant advocacy in the position that she holds.

First of all, I don’t necessarily disagree with Nix at all. I think she’s probably right. Hardy’s actions are indefensible, and there’s little arguing that. In her stance, she even offers a bit of a unique solution to boot.

But there lies the problem: My mind is made up. Because she spoke so eloquently from one angle, I’m only looking at this situation from that one angle. In this particular case, many might argue that’s not a bad thing, but that’s beside the point.

As Fred Brown of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee writes, that’s a dangerous path to go down in journalism. “It’s important to differentiate between opinion and impartial news coverage. More and more news organizations, though, seem to blur the lines between the two.”

Considering that Nix not only hosts the show, a position that’s usually expected to mediate more than converse, it seems that she may be guilty of just that, intentionally or not.

Then consider, though, that Hardy’s issue is a moral one and the perspective changes.

Ben George, the digital managing editor for Townsquare Media’s digital properties in Tuscaloosa, looks at a case like Hardy’s as such. While he believes journalists generally shouldn’t take a stance on issues, he said there are exceptions to that with Hardy’s case included.

“If you’re reporting on a game, something that’s got two sides to it, and it’s not a right or wrong issue, that’s one thing,” George said. “But if there is morality involved, there is that opportunity to kind of take a position and advocate for something.”

So when asked about Nix’s stance, George, who develops daily online content to build the brands of each of the five sister radio stations owned by Townsquare Media in Tuscaloosa, said he had no qualms with it.

“I think if you feel strongly for something like that, I don’t think it’s an issue when you advocate for something like that,” said George, who coordinated live event broadcasts as a lead associate director at ESPN from 2006-2013.

Still, he would add that it’s important to always stay cognizant of the potential influence of your words before putting them out there on anything – whether that’s through print or broadcast.

NBC NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth, who most recently called the Cowboys’ home game against the Philadelphia Eagles on the network’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast this past week, for instance, took a different approach from Nix’s when discussing Hardy. Aside from saying the photos and Hardy’s case in general made him “uncomfortable,” Collinsworth, along with play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, chose to exclude voicing personal commentary on the elephant in the room when addressing it pregame.

In Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch’s Monday media column published the day after the game, Collinsworth explained his rationale, noting the moral dilemma involved.

“I probably had a little bit stronger feelings than what I expressed but you try to understand what it is like to be in the audience of a football game,” he said. “I have political opinions I don’t express. I have social opinions I don’t express. But when the two intersect as they did in this case, there is some duty I think as a broadcaster to say what you think. So we did, without trying to burden the viewer at home or the broadcast.”

And that’s what journalists must remember. Because while some situations may call for the need to take a firm stand, like Hardy’s, most probably don’t.

Unfortunately, it’s usually not an easy determination to make.

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