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Should Journalists Think More Like Lionel from Dear White People?

May 9, 20176 min read

SPOILER ALERT: Dear White People, Season 1, Episode 2

As journalists, we are taught that news is an objective declaration of facts presented in an unbiased manner. Many journalists and publications subscribe to this philosophy, and Americans have bought into it. Although not all Americans agree on what news sources are objective (like Trump’s simple, pathetic attack on certain publications as “fake news”), there is a certain expectation for news to be written without any infusion of personal politics, opinions, or biases. This expectation is unreasonable, for all writing is created by people. People have different opinions, different values, and different priorities. Thus, any writing called “news” is inherently subjective.

In the Netflix Original Series, “Dear White People,” one scene spoke to me as someone involved in and interested in the ethics of journalism. The storyline of the TV show revolves around an event on the show’s elite “9th Ivy” college campus, where a group of white male students throw a “Dear Black People” party, to which 100 students show up in blackface. The show takes place in modern day, supposedly post-racial society, and the show borrows elements from real events that have occurred on college campuses, notably Dartmouth’s “Bloods and Crips” themed soiree. The journalist of the show, Lionel, has the intel that he is pressured to report about by his editor. The information is that Sam, a highly political activist and student, was the one who secretly hacked into the white boys’ Facebook account and sent out the invite as a social experiment (after the party was initially shut down by the school’s administration) to prove that racism was healthy and thriving on her campus and in society as a whole. Exposing this information would have made Lionel a star journalist. Instead of doing what any journalist who wants to further his reputation would have done by exposing Sam behind her back, he thinks of the impact that it would have, thus Lionel gives Sam the opportunity to break the story herself. Sam ends up telling her truth to the community, saving her from being humiliated by the newspaper belittling the message she wanted to send.

After Lionel tells Sam that the school’s newspaper was about to out her, Sam tells Lionel that “journalism’s gonna be a big challenge for you.” Lionel, instead of reporting the evidence that could have discredited and ruined Sam’s reputation and overall message, makes a decision based on his own moral codes rather than strict codes of journalism: to report the truth with no regard for how it might influence politics.

This plot connects to the publication of hundreds of articles, many by reputable sources like the New York Times, regarding Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails during a critical time just weeks before the election. The Times published a letter to Congress about a deeper investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, which Hillary Clinton herself acknowledged affected the outcome of the election. Last Wednesday, former F.B.I. Director James Comey addressed questions regarding the sudden email investigation, and stated that it made him “feel mildly nauseous that we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision. Everybody who disagrees with me has to come back to Oct. 28 with me and stare at this and tell me what you would do.”

The New York Times covered the F.B.I. email investigation heavily during the weeks leading up to the election, and although the intention of the news is not to sway the game of politics, the impact is definitely so. In our world, there is an infinite amount of information that we as humans are incapable of knowing . Journalists pick and choose what to highlight, and that choice alone is political. In James Comey’s decision to investigate a case about Hillary Clinton’s emails that had little to do with previous investigations, without a doubt, is a political move, especially since this information was released just weeks before the election.

Journalists who write news should strive for objective truth, but at the same time, is it too much to ask for journalists and publications to think of the severe consequences of situations like these? Look at where we are now. Several Muslim bans, harsh budget cuts, repealing Obamacare, and an incompetent president is what we are left with. Is that consequence worth the journalistic integrity of reporting all facts, regardless of the real life impact?

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