Language as an ethical decision
Journalists have the ability to shape national conversation in multiple ways. Not only do newspapers and broadcast stations often determine what we are talking about, but they also have the ability to choose what side we take and what facts we consider. Because of this power, choice of language is an important decision each journalist faces. From an ethical standpoint, choice of language is what keeps a journalist honest, unbiased and holds them to standards we have come to expect of our news sources. In this discussion, we will consider how language is an ethical decision and how journalists should consider morality when crafting a piece.
“Ethical journalists use language ethically, considering the truthfulness, the precision, the impact and the long-term consequences of the words used. Unethical journalists, on the other hand, are careless with the language.” – John C. Merrill, Journalism Ethics
Brock Turner Case Study
Last year, the case of People v. Turner was one of the most publicized lawsuits of the year. The case, which accused Brock Turner of three counts of sexual assault, garnered massive attention for more than just the facts of the case, which were (in short) as follows:
- Turner, a swimmer at Stanford University, was found by two passersby on top of an unconscious woman near a fraternity house.
- He was arrested and charged with rape of an intoxicated person, rape of an unconscious person, assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.
- He was eventually charged with assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.
What attracted the attention of a nation, however, is what many saw as Turner’s “privileged” treatment throughout the trial process and his subsequent early release from jail. Turner was sentenced to six months in jail after a judge determined that more time behind bars would be “damaging” to his overall well being. He was released after three months for good behavior. He was banned from USA swimming, banned from the Stanford campus (he withdrew before facing disciplinary action) and will be forced to register as a sex offender. While these facts can be seen by some as troublesome on their own, for the purposes of journalism ethics we will discuss backlash surrounding media coverage of the case.
For some, what they considered special treatment of Turner continued in the media coverage of his trial, imprisonment and release from jail. More specifically, readers found it problematic that major news sources (CNN, Sports Illustrated, TIME, BBC, etc.) continue to refer to Turner as “Stanford swimmer” but none labeled him the sex offender he was found to be, or referenced his crime. It is also worth noting that none of the articles I found quoted the 7,200-word statement released by the victim.
Backlash of Media Coverage
Following the backlash from the Twitter-sphere and by commenters, a few news sources changed their headlines to more accurately describe the crime committed.
The original Sports Illustrated headline read “Stanford Swimmer Brock Turner to be released from jail.” It now reads “Ex-Stanford swimmer convicted of rape released from jail.”
SI reporter Scooby Axson said he was unaware of the public backlash at first and, while he wrote the original headline, it was his editing team that changed it, “partly because of the backlash.”
“We all know he was convicted of sexual assault but it is up to each entity to decide whether they want to insult the audience’s intelligence, or whether they want to use stronger terms like rapist or convicted rapist in the headline,” Axson said.
In the case of TIME, the editors even replaced the story’s lede – which originally referred to him as a “star swimmer,” but made no mention of the crime. The original headline read “Stanford Swimmer Brock Turner Has Been Released from Jail” with this as the leading paragraph: “He was released three months early for good behavior – Former Stanford student and star swimmer Brock Turner was released from Santa Clara County jail on Friday.” Now, the headline is “Brock Turner Released After Serving 3 Months for Sexual Assault” and the lede says: “He was released three months early for good behavior -Former Stanford student Brock Turner was released from Santa Clara County jail on Friday after serving three months for sexual assault.”
Reporter Kate Samuelson did not respond to request for comment.
Other journalists have spoken out on the choice of language and how it contributes to an unhealthy rape culture in our country:
“Because Turner was a star swimmer at Stanford, coverage of his trial received the ‘once-promising future’ treatment. In reporting on sexual assault, media outlets show a pattern of focusing on how the assailant has a bright future and how the current case could ruin his upward trajectory — most articles about Turner include a nice portrait of him instead of his mugshot.” – Dahlia Grossman-Heinze, Bitch Media
“The rush to humanize Turner and grant him a lenient sentence is an example of a system that elevates the voices and experiences of white men, and dismisses violence against women. As a young, successful white male athlete, Turner benefits from a level of compassion and empathy rarely expressed for any other group of people in America, a benefit of the doubt that people of color and women rarely get.” – Prachi Gupta, Cosmopolitan
Ethical questions for discussion:
- How is the choice of language an ethical decision in journalism?
- Is it the media’s responsibility to label Brock Turner a certain way – why or why not?
- Was there a third option?
- Are there any examples you’ve seen in the media where language choice – not incorrect fact – has changed a story?
- Is it ethical for the language to be changed if the public responds poorly to it?
- While it may not be the fault of headline writers that this culture of rape and unequal treatment exists, do journalists, as humans, have a moral duty to do what they can to combat it?
For more about writing ethical headlines, check out this post.