Reporting first or reporting right

Gilbert Bailon illustrates the process of ethical decision making in journalism amid Ferguson events


Ellen Kanzinger

Gilbert Bailon stresses the importance of accuracy of reporting. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger, ’18.

Laura Wang and Xiaoxia Yin

Amid inflamed racial tensions and emotional distress, what can a journalist ethically report?

Gilbert Bailon, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, answered this question in his lecture “Ethics Amid the Ferguson Firestorm” in Stackhouse Theater on Nov. 13. The talk was the keynote speech for 60th Ethics Institute of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, a bi-annual event held for students in journalism and media ethics classes to meet professional journalists and examine case studies that they provided.

“The Ethics Institute has been around for some time,” Aly Colón, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics, said. “[The Knight Program in Media Ethics] brings professionals in the field to interact with students in the [journalism ethics] class to discuss actual case studies, to see how professionals deal with them.”

Pam Luecke, Department head of Journalism and Mass Communications, felt that the Ethics Institute was central to a Washington and Lee journalist’s education.

“Ethics is the cornerstone to what we teach in this department of journalism,” Luecke said. “[The Institute] is a great opportunity to think about some key issue in the field. Having exposure to a professional journalist will bring fresh insight to ethical issues we face every day, and help all students understand the real ethical challenges they will face when they enter the profession.”

Bailon won the Benjamin C. Bradlee 2014 Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Foundation by covering the police shooting at Ferguson and Missouri in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

“He will tell us what kind of ethical decision you need to make in an altercation,” Colón said prior to the event. “It will be interesting [to hear] a journalist explain what’s involved to cover such a disturbance of a protest.”

In his speech, Bailon first mentioned that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch felt a lot of pressure when covering Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., because it was impossible for journalists to anticipate the events that occurred.

He then stressed his central theme: that journalists should report the truth. Since the wrong information may misguide the readers, he shared some ethical questions that the media faced.

“It’s better to be right than first,” Bailon said in his speech.

In covering Ferguson, some journalists jumped to report unconfirmed information, which ultimately proved to be false or exaggerated after investigation. He illustrated the example of the fabrication of New York Post in this case as a rushed judgment and other similar superficial misjudgments.

“[Ferguson] is the best story that’s recently happened in this area,” Bailon said. “It’s a good example of covering a difficult and emotional story. [We as journalists need] to reaffirm the other source[‘s information] and make sure we have our facts before we move forward.”

He also addressed the influence of social media, which has changed the way the media covers breaking news by serving a dual purpose of gathering information and organizing protest leaders. He stated that social media could add angles missed by the media but also could distort the truth with politically fueled viewpoints. Journalists, he said, have the duty to report fact with meaningful context, rather than pursue gossip.

The distinction between privacy and people’s right to know was explained through the use of photos and designs in reporting. He showed how the St. Louis Post-Dispatch emphasized different details of the event depending on how far removed they were from the actual occurrence.

Although they received criticism for some of their reports, Bailon felt they fulfilled their journalistic duties by presenting accurate and important information.

“It’s a lot more serious than I thought,” Elly Cosgrove, ’19, said. “A major problem he faced is that the media should show no bias, but it’s hard since people may perceive news with bias.”