In journalism, assessing the limits of harm

Last week’s attacks in Paris have clearly sparked a discussion in newsrooms about the line between the freedom of journalists to say whatever they feel the need to say and the responsibility not to offend or harm, at least not unnecessarily.

Even that discussion has led to another one: Can you support that freedom and still take a pass on upsetting someone who might take offense at its exercise?

“In thinking about provocateurs and insulters,” David Brooks wrote on Thursday, “we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.”

Dexter Evans Let’s throw another unrelated story into this discussion; last week’s NPR story about a pastor who is attracted to men, but married a woman because of the dictates of his religion.

“I think we all have part of our desires that we choose not to act on, right?” Allen Edwards told NPR. “So for me, it’s not just that the religion was important to me, but communion with a God who loves me, who accepts me right where I am.”

Clearly, Pastor Edwards’ story reinforces the notion held by many that God does not embrace homosexuals, certainly a debatable point.

“I’m concerned about the message Mr. Edwards is sending to young homosexuals in his congregation,” a Presbyterian listener wrote on the online version of the story. “Homosexuality is not a choice – you don’t wake up one morning and choose which sex you will be attracted to. Perhaps Mr. Edwards should make the distinction that he is bisexual. Also, it should have been mentioned (because Mr. Edwards is a Presbyterian pastor), that the largest Presbyterian denomination (PC-USA) accepts gay pastors and voted last summer that marriages between same-sex couples can be performed in our churches (in states where it is legal).”

But what is the journalist’s responsibility in telling the story? Should it be told at all?

On this week’s Weekend Edition Sunday, another man wishes NPR hadn’t run the story.

It’s Dexter Edwards, Pastor Edwards’ brother. He’s gay.

“I was kind of frustrated that NPR made this a news story because I feel how detrimental it can be to other people,” he says. “I understand that it’s an opinion and it’s a lifestyle choice, and that everyone does and can choose what they want to do, but I would never want this to harm anyone.”

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics requires journalists to “support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.” It further requires them to minimize harm.

But how do we assess what the harm is and to extent harm must be tolerated in the telling of a story?

  • Jack

    I am sorry. I really am. I am trying to understand this word tolerance and how it is used in this sentence.
    “But how do we assess what the harm is and to extent harm must be tolerated in the telling of a story?”
    I have always ALWAYS believed that regardless of what someone says you do not have the right to throw a brick through their window; even if you are the Mayor’s nephew and you know people in high places.
    The cartoons are horrid, but it does not give anyone the right to shoot the artist.

    • There’s really nothing about this post debating anyone’s right to shoot an artist.

      I suspect the confusion comes from the word “harm,” which in this case doesn’t involve killing journalists but refers to perceived “harm” that the work of journalists does.

      • Jack

        That’s the problem Bob. If you do not explain exactly what you have intended, and these days even if you do, someone gets offended or in your words, harmed. The retaliation for causing harm these days seems to be amazingly violent.
        The fear of causing some unforeseen reaction to something written or drawn leads down the path of losing your freedom of speech/expression.

        • But that’s really not what the post is about. I doubt anyone at NPR is concerned for their safety because they ran a story about a gay man who got married to a woman because his religion says he has to (in his interpretation).

          But is the harm of reinforcing that message as great — or greater — than the harm caused by a cartoon? Who decides that and — as I said — where is the line that determines what harm is acceptable?

          • Jack

            Again, (in my interpretation) harm caused is an individual perception. What you believe to be harmful and what I believe to be harmful could be completely different. The outcome is unpredictable in a violent society that we live in.

            “I doubt anyone at NPR is concerned for their safety

            Just wait until a brick gets tossed through their window.

          • Alright, Jack. let me know when you right your blog post about YOUR perception of harm and I’ll go discuss it there.

          • Nick K

            Why the snarky comment? Have you forgotten how you ended your blog post? “But how do we assess what the harm is and to extent harm must be tolerated in the telling of a story?” Doesn’t perception play into assessing harm? It seems to me like Jack is trying to create a dialogue based on the question you asked.

          • Because the harm returned to a journalist isn’t the question. It’s the “harm” (however you wish to identify it) inflicted by the journalist.

          • Jack

            what is trying to be conveyed, is your word harm which is subjective and not objective.
            Harm caused can vary between cultures. France seems to be a bit more liberal with expression than, say, here in the United States.

          • Of course it is subjective. All the more reason to answer the question if you’re an editor.

          • Jack

            Then you are taking a poll and there are no **good** answers.

          • Well, what I’m asking you to do is put yourself in the role of an editor and define how you would draw the line of what stories constitute too much harm to a listener/reader in deciding what stories you put on the air/into print.

            Yes, it’s hard.

          • Jack

            Well, in truth, I believe that the ‘having a leg up on it’ (my computer is hissing at me right now) or the other rule of ‘who your Daddy is’ applies.
            I believe I am about to be edited.

  • Anna

    The digital age has changed society in ways we could not have anticipated when it was a fledgling technology back in the 80’s. We say and do things today we would never have had the courage to say to someone in person.

    You cannot read non-verbal reactions to a Facebook posting or a Twitter post, even an email and once it is sent it’s out there for anyone who has access and with Facebook and Twitter, that’s just about anyone who has Internet access.

    While I don’t think we need to return to social censorship of Edwardian times when religion and politics were absolutely unsuitable for everyday conversation, politeness and sensitivity for the feelings of others is rapidly disappearing from the social landscape. We say and express opinions because we CAN with little consideration for how it might affect others.

    Had John F. Kennedy’s indiscretions been as public as adulterous politicians’ of today, he would never have been elected president. Private life was private back then and it wasn’t discussed in public.

    Your right to free speech ends where my tolerance level begins.

    • KTN

      “Your right to free speech ends where my tolerance level begins.”
      Well that is not quite right. whether you are offended by someones speech is of no consequence, especially if we have to measure your tolerance level.
      The right to speak freely is not incumbent on whether or not the speech offends. Case after case shows the Court giving wide latitude to offensive speech, knowing that if they had to decide using a tolerance level, well, it would not really be very workable.

    • Nick K

      You’re call for people to self censor themselves really annoys me. Therefore, by your own logic, you should delete your post since your free speech ends where my tolerance level begins. Or are you really saying that you and you alone are in a position to arbitrate what views can and cannot be shared?

      • Anna

        There is a world of difference between “acceptance” and “tolerance.”

        Frankly I would never read a rag like Charlie Ebdoh. Their news content is not something I consider in good taste. But it seems today that many people do not know what constitutes good taste and proper manners nor do they seem to care. We have crossed a line and the Pandora’s box has been opened.

        The “Slender Man” attack was a direct result of the lack of parental guidance of the accused attackers. Had the parents been monitoring what their children were reading and “censoring” what websites they could visit, the whole tragic incident probably could have been avoided.

        My other intolerance relates to the number of grammatical errors and lack of proofreading in online content. Spelling and grammar check functions do not take the place of good, old-fashioned proofreading.

  • Ron Helton

    “But what is the journalist’s responsibility in telling the story? Should it be told at all?”

    From my reading of the NPR story, it appears that Mr. Edwards sought out an interview. He is certainly actively engaged in telling his story.

    For me personally:
    1. I don’t know the young man
    2. I am not a member of his church
    3. Don’t believe in religious fantasies.
    4. His lifestyle choices are not my concern nor do I care one iota.

    So the real question is “Should the journalist bother to tell somebody’s story even if they persist?”

    How is the story even enlightening to any thinking person? Is this now journalism’s version of reality (gag) television?

    With so many more important issues in the world, it seems rather ludicrous for NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO to be concerned about such a trite issue.

    • I would submit that the issue of how religion embraces/doesn’t embrace gays among its faithful, how families respond to someone coming out, is hardly trite.

      Also, your final paragraph suggests that by telling this story, NPR can’t tell other stories, too. That’s inaccurate, obviously.

      • Ron Helton


        Somebody’s PERSONAL sexual preferences is newsworthy?

        Like I said, this smacks of journalism falling to the same low level as reality television.

        If anything, this is something that should be discussed among himself and the other members of his fantasy club.

        • Yes, seriously.

          Also, I don’t believe whether someone is gay or not gay is someone’s preference.

          • Ron Helton

            Have a great day!

          • Ron Helton

            Well, since you have seen fit to add another paragraph since i bid you good day. Here ya go!

            Of course it is a preference. One can prefer to abstain from sex or pursue their pre-wired inclinations. Whether it be heterosexual or homosexual. Being gay is not some “acquired taste”.

            So yeah, it is a preference. Isn’t that basically the gist of the original story? This man decided to ignore his preferred or desired sexual urges and marry a woman for his religion.

            Is it natural to mate with the same sex? NO! Is it normal for those who do? Yes, if that is how their brain is wired. They can no more turn off their sexual inclinations than I could change that I am predominantly left-handed and was branded as the spawn of the devil when I was child. And smack around every time I put a pencil in my left hand. So yeah, I know how ludicrous and asinine people can behave when confronted with people who are “different”.

            I don’t care what somebody’s sexual proclivities are, it is their business. I don’t march in heterosexual pride parades, so don’t expect me to give a damn about marching or supporting something as ludicrous as a gay pride parade. One’s sexuality is a personal thing, not a community rite of passage.

            We are what we are at birth. We have to accept each other as we are and just move on with living and dying. We have become a country of victims and rubberneckers. It should be no surprise that we are a country in decline because of our constant introspective examinations and the never ceasing anal attempts at being politically correct.