Ethical Journalism

In the beginning, I just wanted a way to make money. I did not always want to be a journalist or a writer. As a young man of twenty-two in the early 1990s, recently married with two small children I just needed money and a break. Nevertheless, like so many other young brown men, I had no skills, no training, and no prospects for the future. It seemed the only job I could get always involved a mop and a broom.

Growing up the way I did, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1980s, education beyond high school was never encouraged. After high school, I became a full time unpaid minister of the good news for two years.

I moved from job to job during those years. I worked everything from slaughterhouses to construction sites. I washed windows and got paid to used sticky cheesecloth to wipe down the inside of ovens that baked enameled paint onto Fisher Body’s finest cars as they roll down the assembly line.

If there was a job that paid, I did it. Those were long, hard, and frustrating days. I was never satisfied. I never felt the sense of belonging; the feeling of satisfaction one imagines somebody feels at the end of the day, when you look back on everything you’ve done and think to yourself, “I did good work today.” I felt trapped, useless. As if I was disappearing, wasting away. I believed myself destined for something more than cleaning the inside of industrial ovens but the lumpen reality of my life told me otherwise.

I began to think that perhaps I was deluding myself; maybe I was not as smart or special as I had imagined. I began to give up and give in. All around me from every corner the whispers of the well meaning got louder and louder. “It’s okay – just accept it. Don’t try to succeed in this world. God will reward you in the next.” As much as I tried and wanted to believe – I never found those words comforting.

Then one day it all changed. I was walking out of Meijer with my wife and two children when I ran into an old high school friend of mine Josie Mendez. She had finished her program at Michigan State and was working at a non-profit agency called Michigan Economics and Human Development (that agency went defunct when the executive director was arrested for embezzling state funds).

Their mission was to help migrant workers who wanted to get out of the migrant stream settle down and find employment or job training. Josie asked me what I was doing with myself and as my wife Vivian walked to the car, I told her how I was struggling to make money. I had just gotten back from working with my father in Iowa de-tassling corn over the summer.

She was shocked and immediately asked me what the hell I thought I was doing? “Why are you doing work like that? You’re too smart for that!” she said. She asked me if I was looking for a job. I told her I was and she said she had money for a job-training program at El Renacimiento, which was the monthly Xicano newspaper published in Lansing that had been around for about 20 years but recently fallen on hard times.

They were looking for someone who could handle the office work and she was having a hard time finding someone she thought could handle the job. I told her I did not know anything about working at newspapers. She told me that did not matter – that was the purpose of job training programs, to train Mexicans.

Now to be clear, I was not a migrant worker. My father’s family had come to Michigan in the migrant stream but I was never a part of that world and because of that there was a part of me that felt guilty about taking the job but at the same time – I started to get excited.

My first day at El Renacimiento was like magic. I discovered a world where people tried to meld ideas and words. Where things were happening – people stopped by to talk and they thought what you had to say was at least mildly interesting. In that dingy little storefront reeking of hot wax and dusty paper, I was initiated into the secret world of community newspapers.

I worked there for three months. My life changed forever in those three months. When it was over, I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. To spend my life telling stories, spinning yarns, turning a phrase. I was in love with the possibilities. Journalism brought that to my life and I wanted more.

Many decisions were made during that time. Going back to school was the biggest one. I knew the only way I could be a reporter was to go to college and so I went down and enrolled at Lansing Community College. While I was there, I started reading a copy of the school newspaper the LCC Lookout. I noticed they were looking for editors for the fall. Feeling full of confidence in my newly acquired paste up skills I applied for the job and was hired as the news editor.

My knowledge of journalism began and ended with the things I had learned at El Renacimiento: Newspapers existed to serve the community. Our job was to inform, educate and if necessary prod our readers to action. I worked hard at my new job at the college paper and through my association with our advisor Louise Wirbel I began to understand certain things: Journalists never reveal sources, journalists never make up sources, journalists defend the downtrodden of our society. We ask the questions they will never get the chance to ask. We have a duty to perform and we cannot allow ourselves to be bullied out of doing it by those in power or with great position.

What I did not realize at the time was how narrowly the ‘ethical’ tenets of journalism were interpreted in a corporate media setting or the price anyone defying those definitions would pay.

As my experiences at that small community college, newspaper expanded so did my awareness of the world around me. I was beginning to hear new ideas, listen to people challenge authority and the words used to uphold that authority. A critical view of the world began to form in my mind. All of a sudden, I really had something to say. I left for Michigan State and the journalism program, after an extremely successful second year at the Lookout had brought national Pacemaker awards and honors from local professional media when my staff and I broke the story of the recently retired athletic director’s year of embezzlement.

I was welcomed with open arms into the local journalist community. Scholarships were coming my way, stringer jobs for the local daily were offered and accepted, I was on the fast track to everything I had ever wanted. All I had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride.

The trouble began with the stories I wanted to do about events happening in the Xicano community. The first Gulf War was raging and I found myself drawn to the protests and other activities, I wanted to write about them and the students organizing them.

On campus, all of the books I had been reading began to make sense and I started to see the world in a much different light. I also started to believe more and more in the power of the word, my ability to write about, expose and drag out in the open for everyone to see the horrible injustices of the world. However, nobody wanted to let me write about that. They wanted me to cover flower shows and write about Fourth of July parades or doggy poop laws. Because I could not write about the things I wanted to, I began to speak out about them.

That is when thing got weird. “What are you doing?” My advisors would ask. “It is unethical for journalist to take side in an issue,” I was told repeatedly. “We must maintain objectivity. A good journalist never takes sides.” Nevertheless, I found the more I read about racism, and economic oppression and the more I wrote about those subjects the more I needed to speak out. I could not stop and I did not want to.

My future’s gatekeepers drew a line: stop talking politics, stop organizing rallies, stop being the story - be the storyteller. There is no place in journalism for radicals. Radicals cannot be real journalists because they have opinions they cannot keep to themselves. We are an institution judged on the content and context of our perceived objectivity. Radicals need not apply.

That was the state of journalism in the 1990s. Things have certainly changed.

Therefore, my ethical dilemma came to an abrupt end. So did the internships, scholarships, and money for support. I decided, with a heavy heart, I would never be a journalist and I left for Detroit to work as an organizer for the United Farm Workers. I did not then and I still do not believe it is unethical for journalists to take sides. I do think it is important to say you are taking a side if you have one. Anything less would be a purposeful deception.

Journalists then and more so now are neither impartial observers nor conscientious objectors to the struggle of society furtively recording the happenings of this world.

We are players, movers, and shakers. We draw out from people their hopes, fears and aspirations and then reassemble them for others to consider and ponder. Who we are, what we know, what we believe is as much a part of the story as the name and age of our subject.

Because we are trained to ask questions in order to seek truth, we are ethicists by training. That we have abandoned the great tradition of question and action is merely an indication of our misunderstanding of our role in society. It keeps us from asking the most important question of all; why am I thinking this?

When we say it is unethical to insert ourselves into a story or a situation then we forget the very real fact that we are actually there. Our duty is to witness, record, and the moment we arrive on the scene, we have “inserted” ourselves into the story. We become a part of the story. Throughout the countless millennia of humanities existence on this planet the storyteller has been the progenitor of the story.

It is unethical to impose silence on anyone. Whether they are the subject of the story or the storyteller, to make someone choose between defending their beliefs with either actions or words is not a course of enlightenment nor is it ethical. It is a breeding ground for apathy.

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