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Getting Personal: Editorial Judgment in the Digital Public Square

  • AuthorJill Geisler
  • Published Monday, August 10th, 2015
  • Comments0

Donald Trump, while trashing Senator Lindsey Graham on live TV, gives out Graham’s private cell phone number. He repeats it for emphasis.

Gawker Media publishes graphic details of a proposed hookup between a relatively unknown male media CFO and a gay porn actor. Gawker identifies the married exec.

If you’re eager to learn the Senator’s number or the CFO’s name, you can surf around and find them online. But the links I’m sharing in this essay aren’t your fast path. I’ve chosen stories that covered the issues but downplay those details — like this CNN piece that bleeps Trump’s voice as he broadcasts Graham’s digits.

What is this, some kind of censorship?

Nope. That’s too easy an answer, one that doesn’t require much critical thinking. Calling this censorship presumes the following: When it comes to information, anything goes. If it’s true, it’s always newsworthy. If it’s out there anywhere, it’s fair game. If publication causes pain, it’s not a problem. If you choose not to share it, you’re a censor.

Or maybe you’re an editor. Using editorial judgment.

Editorial judgment is hard work. It starts with a desire to be anything but a censor: to lean toward revealing rather than concealing. To fight for access to information while bringing rigor to decisions about its use.

Editorial judgment may be the hallmark of thoughtful media organizations, but they have no lock on it. It can easily flourish in the ranks of free-lancers, bloggers and social media practitioners. Why not?

Editorial judgment is a process that starts with the question: What do we stand for? The answers may be:

– Accuracy
– Context
– Fairness
– Independence
– Transparency
– Holding powerful people and organizations accountable
– Minimizing harm while telling truths

They exist alongside less lofty-sounding but very real values like:

– Beating the competition
– Building the brand
– Attracting target audience
– Maximizing profits

Editorial judgment is an inevitable juggling act among competing values and the outcomes they may drive:

If you take time to double-check information in breaking news, you risk being scooped. If you report on a home team’s recruiting scandal, you may alienate the local fans. If you share real-time info on police converging on a hostage situation, you may tip off the hostage taker. If you blow the whistle on a bad business, it might cancel its advertising. If you show the body of a child killed by a drunk driver, you may add to the anguish of a heartbroken family.

Editorial judgment demands a prioritizing of your values, along with a willingness to “show your math” by revealing your decision-making process.

Editorial judgment also takes into account the rule of law, but what’s perfectly legal may still be unethical.

It’s not illegal to reveal or broadcast Lindsey Graham’s personal cell phone info.

Still, CNN chose to bleep. Why? And why did other publications leave the number out of their coverage of the incident?

Graham’s a public figure. He chose the limelight, right?

The answer lies in the values that guide a media outlet: Readily publish the office numbers of elected officials, but set a higher bar for releasing their home information. The value equation looks like this: Privacy and safety outweigh everyday curiosity. There’s got to be more heft on the side of the public interest before the balance shifts.

And what about the Gawker case? The media exec at the center of the story wasn’t a well-known person. He wasn’t a politician who’d campaigned on morality while practicing hypocrisy. He wasn’t breaking a law. But to the editors behind it, the gay escort story fit Gawker’s longstanding values of extra-strength snark and scandal.

Until it didn’t.

A diverse universe of readers and advertisers rebelled this time. The tabloid tale may have been as true as it was lurid, but they saw it as a vicious and pointless outing of a private man.

CEO Nick Denton removed the story from the web, a rare and controversial action in digital publishing that some view as business-side censorship-after-the-fact. Two editors quit in protest.

In defending his decision, Denton condemned the story and declared that Gawker’s values have now changed – along with those of the audience and advertisers. And to be sure, he placed high emphasis on those advertisers.

In this case, values seemed to pop up and down, only to get batted around like a crazed game of ethical Whac-a-Mole. Fairness: Wham! Privacy: Bam! Independence: Slam!

It was a game in which everyone lost. The subject of the story. Its highly criticized writer. The now-unemployed editors. The publication itself.

Gawker’s wounds were self-inflicted. They didn’t have to happen.

With editorial judgment built on a strong, shared foundation of values, editors could have searched beyond the prurience for a public policy issue, a system failure, or an abuse of power. Finding none, they would have bleeped the piece before it was born.

There will always be Trump-like antics and stories that reek of sleaze. The answer isn’t to recoil; it’s to reflect.

What’s our process for verifying, putting facts into context, checking for (or revealing) our biases, prioritizing our values, and sharing our reasoning?

In today’s digital reality, we’re all publishers. So let me get personal:

What do you stand for?

Jill Geisler is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Communication. 


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