Boynton, Mizzou Scandals Reveal Growing Dispute over Journalistic Ethics

Editorial Board

Journalistic ethics have been under close examination this past week. It seems like everyone has something to say about activists at the University of Missouri calling for privacy in the face of national media coverage as racial tensions forced the resignation of the University’s president and chancellor of the Columbia campus. In Oberlin, the scandal surrounding Angela Boynton and conservative media organization Project Veritas has prompted similar conversations about press freedom and ethical boundaries.

In a video released by Project Veritas on Nov. 3, undercover reporter “Angela Boynton” poses as an Oberlin student triggered by the U.S. Constitution and secretly films Professors Carol Lasser and Wendy Kozol critiquing the “oppressive” document. Oberlin is one of several campuses to have been targeted by similar video “stings,” and students have responded with calls for solidarity with the affected faculty.

Boynton does not openly identify herself as a journalist to the people she secretly films. By assuming a false identity, she obtains information and quotes she might not have otherwise — a legal move, certainly, but one many have questioned on ethical grounds.

At the University of Missouri on Monday, a student and photographer named Tim Tai identified himself as a freelance journalist on assignment for ESPN and sought access to a protest encampment in the center of campus. Despite protesters calling for privacy, Tai claimed his First Amendment rights as a member of the press in a public space. Melissa Click, an assistant professor of Mass Media at the school, called for “some muscle” to remove Tai from the campus quad as she appeared to grab at his camera. On Tuesday, Click resigned from her temporary appointment at the University’s Journalism department. In a tweet that same day after Tai’s removal, anti-racist student group Concerned Student 1950 requested “no media in the parameters [of the protest tents] so the place where people live, fellowship & sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives.”

Because Tai was transparent about his identity as a journalist, he was unable to obtain the information he desired. Tai operated in a legal manner, but here, too, the ethics associated with his actions provoked strong opposing reactions from journalists and activists.

These two cases evidence the fact that, at present, there is no clear-cut way to determine right and wrong when it comes to the practices of field journalists. But aside from stirring up polarizing opinions on issues of free speech and safe spaces, the sheer power of the reactions surrounding these stories proves another point entirely: public attitudes toward journalism are changing.

Journalism’s traditionally accepted role as an objective, nonpartisan practice has been the subject of increasing public scrutiny and heated debate. Demonstrators heckling reporters and denying them access to public spaces is nothing new; indeed, it’s why many foreign correspondents pack bulletproof vests and other protective gear when covering protests overseas. Angela Boynton certainly isn’t the first journalist to use undercover “gotcha” tactics to prove a point. In one famous example, Nellie Bly posed as a mental patient to report on dismal living conditions in a New York City mental asylum in 1887. Her biting exposé on the unethical treatment of patients is the stuff of journalism legend.

But the size and ferocity of the national conversation surrounding Tim Tai and Angela Boynton shows us that many are making a distinction between the rights conventionally afforded journalists and their responsibility in exercising those rights. Just because a journalist can doesn’t mean a journalist should, and that is the rallying cry of many who see tactics used by Tai and Boynton as ethically unsound. Journalists are pushing back by defending the validity of the objective narrative, claiming that the ethical call is theirs to make.

Despite conflicting opinions on the integrity of objective reporting, each side has an opportunity to critically evaluate its relationship with the other. Critics of journalists should acknowledge reporters’ free agency and recognize that, in cases like Mizzou, cooperation can actually amplify the protesters’ message. Similarly, maybe now is a good time for journalists to step back and assess how they interact with outspoken communities and to consider how exercising their right to cover a story on their own terms may not always be prudent.