Racism Riles Newsroom

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A reporter/columnist for a North Carolina newspaper gave a speech to members of the League of the South, telling them how to get their white supremacy message out through media.

This touched off some friction in the newsroom, causing a staff writer for the newspaper to call the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if what her colleague did was ethical?

The League of the South is an American white nationalist, neo-Confederate, white supremacist organization headquartered in Killen, Alabama. Its ultimate goal is a ” free and independent Southern republic.” The group defines the Southern United States as the 11 states that made up the former Confederacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the league a hate group.

The newspaper’s management did not know about the reporter/columnist’s speech, which was given several years earlier, until recently, but was considering publishing a story that mentioned the league, along with a disclaimer mentioning the speech.

“My editor spoke with her and she claimed she didn’t know at the time what the group was about — an explanation that defies credulity given that she is a reasonably intelligent woman who writes about politics, lives in the south and has Internet access,” the staff writer told an AdviceLine advisor. “But the editor took this at face value,” she added, saying the disclaimer might be shelved, partly because the reporter/columnist “was outraged that the editor wanted her to account in print for why she’d been there.

“While we’re given considerable latitude to speak before groups, I am outraged that someone I work with would speak before what is essentially a white supremacist group. When I voiced my concerns to my editor, he became angry at me for bringing him problems without offering solutions.

“He does not seem to want to deal with this. This whole incident is affecting my perceptions of my paper and my role here. Alternative weeklies are typically ‘progressive’ publications, and I most certainly don’t want to work for a publication that harbors people who appeal to racist neo-Confedrate groups. How might I deal with this?”

The AdviceLine advisor asked a few questions about what she knew about the content of her colleague’s speech, and if she is accusing the reporter/columnist of being sympathetic to the league’s views and doubts she was not aware of the league’s goals. The writer said she does not believe her colleague is “an outright racist, but she appeals to a certain segment.”

The AdviceLine advisor responded: “I said I see nothing unethical in what her colleague did, but there is great danger in any ‘implied association’ news reporters may establish. There is less concern if the person is an opinion commentator.” It seemed clear the writer was upset about her colleague’s actions, and that the editor might not publish a proposed story on hate groups, including mentioning the league.

“An ethical perspective gives even ‘crazy ideas’ a right to be heard,” said the advisor. “Access to the media is for all ideas… I said the whole idea is to get the ‘crazy’ ideas out as well as those ideas that oppose the ‘crazy’ ones so the public can decide which ideas are craziest.” The writer responded that she doesn’t object to the league being covered and to allow their voice to get out there.

“My opinion,” wrote the advisor in his report on this call: The writer who called “is upset about her colleague’s views and is looking for an ethical reason and our support to use with her editor. She is basing her objections on her personal suspicions about her colleague. I refused to fall into this trap. I found nothing in what she said to support her opinion that her editor is ‘harboring racist, neo-Confedrate groups.”

The writer sent an email thanking the advisor for his advice, although he suspects she was not pleased with his opinion.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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