On that hard-to-find line between the personal/professional for journalists

This is a sad story. But you should read it and the original blog post, and then share your reaction (here, on my blog) to it. It relates directly to what we’ve been talking about.

It was posted on Medium.

I was fired from my journalism job ten days into Trump

Credit: MaxPixel/creative commons

On Monday I was fired from my job as a journalist at Marketplace, where I have worked as a news reporter since May 2016.

I was fired for publishing a post on my personal blog about being a transgender journalist exploring what it means to do truthful, ethical journalism with a moral compass in this very complex time. It questioned the meaning of neutrality in the face of an administration that’s aggressively promoting fiction. Please read it.

For context, I loved my job at Marketplace. I reported on marginalized communities and tried to illuminate economic issues through human stories. I believe in the mission of media that serves the public, and I believe in truth and fairness in reporting; I have been passionate and dogged in those pursuits, as is every reporter and editor at Marketplace and NPR. (NPR is, by the way, a separate organization — my employer was not NPR but American Public Media — APM.)

For further context, I am (was) the only out transgender reporter at Marketplace or, that I know of, at any national radio outlet. I started working in public radio four years ago through a fellowship created to foster diversity in public media. I have had a very successful career and done a lot of interesting work, including recent stories about the criminalization of disability, federal regulation, the growth of the private prison industry, Donald Trump’s Twitter habits, lamination, and shady lending practices in post-Recession Detroit. I have reported daily stories for the Marketplace Morning Report, often writing two different stories before 9 a.m. which air to millions of people. I am known for being meticulous, accurate, and always on deadline.

I also believe that media needs to change to make space for the diverse voices it purports to desire within its ranks. It is for those reasons that I decided to go public with this story — not out of any desire to disparage my incredible and intelligent colleagues or to tear down the extremely difficult work they do every day. Your local public radio station is likely one of the last bastions of trustworthy reporting in your community. Please support it, especially in its efforts to expand, diversify and experiment.

What happened: Now for the background. Firing stories are always kind of boring and process-oriented. Luckily mine happened pretty quickly so it won’t take up too much of your time. On Wednesday, January 25, after a long day of doing daily news for the Marketplace Morning Report and watching President Trump roll out executive orders, I put up this blog post, reflections on what it is to try to report fairly in a “post-fact” environment. I wanted to hear what other journalists might think about it, and start a conversation about how media organizations need to adapt when freedom of information and the press are under attack.

I thought my experiences navigating this as a trans person might bring some interesting perspective. I also thought, falsely as it turned out, that the prominence of my job at Marketplace would prevent me from becoming a target for expressing such thoughts, and perhaps allow others at smaller organizations or in less powerful positions to express their own misgivings about how to report on this moment. I thought if other journalists disagreed, we could have a vibrant discussion about why, and that it might reach others who were feeling isolated or afraid to speak out.

A couple hours after it was published, I got a call from the managing editor and executive producer at Marketplace. They said my post was in violation of Marketplace’s ethics code, and that I would be suspended from air and should not come into work for the rest of the week.

They specified a few reasons it violated the policy: Marketplace, they said, believes in objectivity and neutrality (though neither word actually appears in its code). And they were concerned about the section of my piece that asserted that we shouldn’t care, as journalists, if we are labeled “politically correct” or even “liberal” for reporting the facts. (I still maintain that we shouldn’t care, and for the record, I am not a liberal.) They said they wished I had brought the post to them first.

After suspending me, they told me to take the post down, and asked me not to speak to my colleagues about it. I asked them what they were worried about: had there been blowback, or consequences to Marketplace related to my publishing this piece? They said it was about the policy, not any particular feedback they’d gotten. But I didn’t and don’t believe I violated our ethics code (see my letter to them below for more on that). I expressed to them that I was very surprised: I had no idea that a personal post raising questions about the role of journalists today would be so controversial. And I’d specifically been asked by Marketplace to maintain a personal blog as part of building my “personal brand.”

The next morning, I took the post down. I also communicated that I wanted some time to think about our conversation. When I did remove it, I was not reinstated.

On Friday, still suspended, I woke up feeling like I was disappearing. My job is a huge privilege. At the same time, I have made a lot of personal compromises to get to do the work that I do: given up a previous life as a youth organizer and opinion writer, set aside personal convictions that matter a lot to me, and put up with a lot of daily disrespect as a trans person(albeit a very privileged one) working in an industry that doesn’t really have space for me. I routinely go out in the field in situations where I can’t feel safe using a public restroom; I approach strangers for interviews in small towns and big cities; I experience small but daily humiliations related to my gender identity. I’m also fearless. Allowing myself to be intimidated into retracting a thoughtful blog post about ethics felt like one too many compromises, small though it may seem. I sent my superiors a very heartfelt message (copied below) and let them know I’d be putting the post back up at the end of the day.

They didn’t respond. I wasn’t given a chance to debate the issues I raised, to hear exactly what they might change about the post, or to discuss why I didn’t think I should be punished.

On Monday morning, the VP of Marketplace fired me. I was terminated effective immediately, with my benefits ending in two days and an offer of two weeks’ pay.

The VP said she believed I’d shown what kind of journalism I want to do — I think the assumption was that I want to do advocacy journalism — and that it is not the kind of journalism Marketplace does. Again, here is the original piece. Here is Marketplace’s code of ethics. She said that we cannot be both activists and journalists at the same. I respectfully disagreed with that binary. I never suggested that we should become advocates rather than doing our jobs as journalists, nor do I believe we should take stances on policy issues in our stories. However, I believe journalism itself is under attack, and in order to defend it, we need to know what we stand for and perhaps even consider activism as journalists on behalf of fairness, inclusivity, and free speech. All told, I suspect that the move to get rid of me was more about fear of the perception of what I said than what I actually said.

Why I’m telling you: I know I’m not the only one having doubts about our role as journalists. I hope I can contribute to a meaningful conversation about how media organizations need to change to adapt to the times, putting ethics and morality into historical context — history shows these things change as politics shift. I have been told a few times that this is a simple choice between “journalism” and “activism.” I believe my original piece makes clear why I find that binary to be false. (Also, I’m trans. I’ve spent my life fighting binaries just to survive!)

I hope people understand my messages here: that we cannot have token diversity without making actual space for the realities of being a marginalized or oppressed person doing journalism; that we cannot look to the same old tools to defend truth in reporting; that we must work harder and do more to truly represent the communities we report on and on behalf of in order to build trust and remain relevant. I have always believed these things, but didn’t expect that these beliefs would be put so harshly to the test, so soon after Donald Trump came into power.

I wish everyone in public media luck in navigating what is truly a new world. I did not expect nor desire to be fired from my job as such an apparently direct result of the fear produced by these intimidating and fast-moving political changes. I can see at least one silver lining: for those of us who are used to fighting for our dignity, perhaps it will be marginally less difficult to identify the tools we need in this moment, pick them up, and wield them against authoritarianism and tyranny.

Here is my last communication with Marketplace before I was fired:

Dear [managing editor and executive producer],

I have been reflecting very deeply on our conversation, and on my suspension from being on air at Marketplace. I’ve also revisited the contents of the blog post I wrote, as well as Marketplace’s ethics policy.

I have come to a few conclusions.

One is that I don’t agree that my post was in clear violation of Marketplace’s ethics policies. I believe there is a lot of ambiguity there, and I routinely see colleagues of mine say things on social media that could be interpreted as disagreeing with or opposing the current administration. I also wonder if anyone else has been suspended summarily for violation of Marketplace’s ethics policy and if my colleagues are aware of where the line is. The policy asks that we not post anything we wouldn’t say on air or on Marketplace’s digital properties. I believe that I would and should be allowed to raise the questions my piece raised on Marketplace’s air or on our digital publications. In fact, I would welcome the invitation.

Another is that I cannot maintain my own integrity, both in my identity and in my personal views, and comply with your request to keep the post down. My integrity and courage are my most important assets as a journalist, and I don’t believe we can do our jobs well in this moment without rigorously maintaining both.

For that reason, I’ve decided to put the post back up tonight. I’ve copied the text of it below, as a reminder to you of what it said. I think it is also self-explanatory on the question of why I think voices and views like this are important to air at this historical moment. I wish any of us had a handle on where our country, the media and the free press are headed. My posting invited open discussion. I’d love to participate in that together.

On that note, I would encourage Marketplace, or perhaps another employee of Marketplace with different views, to publicly rebut my points. I would love to see that conversation carried on transparently and in public, and I believe it would contribute to building the public trust in our organization as a voice of reason and truth, and as an organization with the courage to stand up for its employees when we are ourselves targets of oppressive policies.

Marketplace has encouraged me to build my personal brand on Twitter and on Medium. I believe my voice has an important place in the public conversation. I also want to be clear that I am not, and have never, advocated that I or we should report stories in a way that doesn’t fairly consider the arguments or what is at stake. Nor have I proposed that we should take a stance on political parties or specific policies in our stories. But I am absolutely sure that now is the time to question where our moral center is, which arguments will be given credence in the public sphere, and how our personal experiences and identities influence our coverage. That is what my post on Medium said, and I stand by it.

Finally, I continue to be aghast at the punitive nature of how I have been treated. I was suspended from air, from my job that I love and do well, even before being given the chance to discuss the policies you say I violated. When I agreed to remove the post, I was not immediately reinstated. I am shocked that on the same day our president was cracking down on the dissemination of scientific fact, advocating waterboarding and announcing a policy of aggressive targeting of marginalized communities, Marketplace decided to treat me, its only transgender employee, as the existential threat to what we stand for. Yesterday, the first day of my suspension, Donald Trump’s senior advisor Steve Bannon described the media as the “opposition party.” Trump says he is in a “running war” with the media. I would hope the organization’s concern in this moment would have focused on its employees’ physical and psychological well-being in the face of such statements, doing the extremely difficult jobs we do here.

I am well aware that, as a transgender person, I would not be where I am had I not stood up for myself, for my core values and beliefs. Without courage and an extreme distaste for cowardice, I don’t think I could have become a journalist or even survived the process of coming out as transgender. I came out over a decade before trans people had any of the legal protections and media attention some of us do now. I was brought into public media four years ago as a person with the potential to be an agent of change. Perhaps what needs changing is not my actions, but Marketplace’s policies.

I look forward to talking this afternoon.

Best,

Lewis Wallace

View story at Medium.com

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13 Responses to On that hard-to-find line between the personal/professional for journalists

  1. In general, I like the upfront attitude of showing every piece of the story that this journalist experienced; however, there are two details that I can’t ignore.

    In the original post, I was surprised by this quote: “I propose that we need to become more shameless, more raw, more honest with ourselves and our audiences about who we are, and what we are in this for.” In the first place, it’s understandable that a news company wants to build an editorial line, without anarchic journalists who try to fight their war alone. I get his point too, but I’m not sure how that would match with the fact that journalists need to be out of the story. Objectivity doesn’t exist, fair; but we can still be as honest as we can with our readers. Do they need to know where I stand about that? I don’t think they even care. I don’t see a clear connection between being more raw and more honest with audiences about who we are.

    Other than that, I think there was a lack of communication, because it seems like this journalist doesn’t know exactly what did he violate. However, I was kind of sad when I read this in his letter: “I routinely see colleagues of mine say things on social media that could be interpreted as disagreeing with or opposing the current administration”. First of all, that’s a slippery slope fallacy, one thing can’t justify the next one. It looks like a weak defense, “Oh, you think I behaved wrong? Look what this guy did.” They’re work colleagues, and it’s not a very clean move.

  2. Thanks for sharing this story. In my opinion, Marketplace seems to have chosen to act on the side of caution and shy away from change. However, often times, being overcautious can do more harm than good. As Lewis Wallace said, Marketplace was “more about fear of the perception of what I said than what I actually said.” Although the backbone of a journalist’s work is objectivity and neutrality, which is shown through Marketplace’s ethics code, it is necessary to consider the flexibility of these rules when applying them to everyday actions. This ethics code needs to be flexible and be used within the context of the constantly changing environment of today’s society, similar to the idea of the “Living Constitution” theory. This theory explains how the Constitution evolves and changes over time in order to adapt to new conditions.
    In class, we are continuously discussing ethics and the idea of sacrificing certain aspects of your life in order to be a journalist. This sometimes means giving up your “activist-self”, or as Marketplace explains it, “we [journalists] cannot be both activists and journalists at the same time.” Although this is important, I believe that often times who you are and what you support are two different things. Every single case is different. That is why comparing Wallace’s piece on his blog to the ethics code without taking into account the context behind his life story is, in my opinion, unfair. Being transgender is apart of his life and comparing that to activism does not seem justified. Wallace is not simply in support of transgender people. Wallace is a transgender person. He is living it. It is who he is. For Marketplace to forbid him from existing as to avoid the possibility of upsetting a reader is unjust.
    Marketplace owes it to their readers to have writers who, while being neutral, find it important to be authentic, direct and truthful. For Wallace to be punished for staying true to himself is breaking the trust between Marketplace and the reader. Wallace explains that if Marketplace employees who disagreed with his views would’ve publicly provided a counterargument and sparked an open conversation, “it would contribute to building the public trust in our organization as a voice of reason and truth.”
    Lastly, is it not ironic that Wallace got fired for a personal blog post, when it was Marketplace’s idea in the first place to have employees build a blog to create a “personal brand” for themselves?

    -Alyssa Weisberg

  3. jeremyturley says:

    First, in reading only one side of this clash of ideals, we have not done justice to this multi-faceted issue. I believe Marketplace should respond and delineate its reasoning for Wallace’s termination.

    Though I sympathize with the now-jobless journalist, I understand Marketplace’s hesitance to employ someone with little intention of maintaining objectivity. In the short time I have worked in the field of journalism, I have identified an awkward, unspoken rule: journalists have biases, but they cannot admit them while maintaining credibility. The so-called “post-fact” environment is no excuse to break from objectivity. I believe that objectivity is perhaps the only defense against counterfactual information. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has declared war on the press in unprecedented fashion, citing widespread bias towards leftist ideals and against his populist movement. Wallace’s admission of personal bias would confirm the administration’s unfounded assertion.

    Journalists should have bias towards the truth, and truth is always objective. Journalists must combat the dissemination of falsehoods with the dissemination of undeniable truths. There are ways of doing this while still challenging authority. For instance, the New York Times has served as a strong critic of the Trump administration without admitting a bias towards anything but the truth. I believe this is journalism’s way forward in this “post-fact” climate.

    -Jeremy Turley

    • reedkath says:

      That is well said, Jeremy. More than ever, I think we need to apply the objective process. I also think we need to call people out when they willfully conflate inaccuracy and bias. Or put another way: Just because people don’t like what they’re reading doesn’t make it untrue.

  4. After reading through the article multiple times, I still find myself conflicted in my views on the overall issues presented. On one hand, I can sympathize with Marketplace not wanting to validate the administrations claims of journalism as a whole being biased and therefore unable to report the facts objectively. On the other hand, I agree with Alyssa Weisberg’s comment about how comparing the journalist being transgender to being an activist, and therefore in violation of the ethics code, is unfair. The journalist being transgender is part of who they are and cannot simply be done away with or ignored.

    Journalism is in a precarious position. When Steve Bannon calls the press the “opposition party”, many feel the natural desire to fight back tooth and nail. When the administration leans strongly anti-LGBT, journalists who are a part of that community naturally feel threatened. Balancing personal feelings and fact-based, objective reporting is a challenging balancing act even during the best times and these times are far from the best.

    Personally, I believe that there needs to be more open discussion within journalism about when discussing your personal beliefs with readers is acceptable and when it crosses the line into activism. The lack of communication between Marketplace and the author about why specifically the blog post violated their company’s code of ethics was truly unfortunate and did a disservice to both the author and the company as a whole. Future issues may arise with other reporters, both inside Marketplace and in other institutions. Lack of communication helps no one.

    If honest conversations cannot be had between journalists, then how can journalism continue to move forward? How much of themselves and their beliefs should journalists be required to conceal? I don’t have a perfect answer.

    -Morgan Niezing

  5. aep6wc says:

    At first glance, I was glad that Lewis shared his opinion about some of the hardest changes taking place in journalism right now. We’re in a weird, in-between stage and I don’t think a lot of people know how to handle that well. When I say in-between I mean to say that we are adjusting to this post-factual time period. Every subject is touchy and some things are just hard to write about. I think by coming forward with these thoughts and opinions, Lewis has shown journalists just one way of handling it all. I think it’s also important to note the comments below the original post. Most of the comments were positive and supportive. A lot agreed with Lewis and what he had to say.

    There were a couple of posts that disagreed with him, but it was in such a way that provided a different perspective professionally. Lewis even states in his last email to the company that he wrote this post in order to stir up some of these conversations.
    I didn’t think the company handled this situation correctly by any means. Their code of ethics starts with the line, “Marketplace staffers gain access to sources and information by being honest about our identity.” Lewis was being honest. He was even being honest about his identity. Lewis didn’t include a political view. For Marketplace to even have a hand up in this situation, I think they should have talked to Lewis about what he did that went against the code of ethics.

    Lastly, the only problem I saw with the original post was that it was solely opinionated. I understand that as journalists we are supposed to write factually. However, I do believe we are in a changing period where we can experiment and play around with ideas. I think Lewis knew he had a strong audience who would provide the conversation and argument he was looking for. I hate that this ended poorly for him, but I think if he continues to stir up questions and conversations that aren’t normally brought up he will eventually find the right home at a journalistic outlet that finds his work intriguing.

    – Amanda Postma

  6. Theo DeRosa says:

    This is an interesting piece and presents an important contemporary dilemma — how far is too far when it comes to sharing one’s own political views in a work environment? Marketplace wasn’t conducive to Wallace’s blog post, but I think Wallace did contribute to that by putting the post back up. I do believe Wallace shouldn’t have been fired, but I can understand what reasoning APM employed.

  7. annerogers97 says:

    It’s hard for me to respond to this post because it brings up so many lines that I’m not really sure have been crossed or not. Outright, I sympathize with the journalist. It must have been exceptionally difficult to wake up one morning and be without a job, a job that had accepted you and encouraged you to be the best journalist you can be. And it must be confusing to not really know exactly what you did wrong to be terminated in that manner. I think Marketplace owes him a solid, clear cut explanation for why they did what they did. I also want to say outright that in today’s political culture, I am often uncomfortable when I think about the perils of reporting on the Trump administration. Granted, I am a sports writer, but in this case I will not “stick to sports,” like some might suggest. It’s my right as a human being to be involved in more than sports, and I think it is this journalist’s right to be able to think, and express, his thoughts on what it means to be a journalist. However, I don’t want to say this journalist was 100% correct in what he did and his employer should be ashamed, simply because we don’t know what the employer was thinking. Was there an alternative motive? Did something else happen that the public doesn’t know about? These are all things to consider, and that’s why I’m not saying that this journalist is the “good guy” and Marketplace is the “bad guy.” Not yet.

    Besides for that difficult and hard line that I’m not ready to answer yet, there was one thing that really stuck out to me in this post: “The VP said she believed I’d shown what kind of journalism I want to do — I think the assumption was that I want to do advocacy journalism — and that it is not the kind of journalism Marketplace does.”

    Aren’t all journalists advocates, in a sense? We’re watchdogs. We advocate for the people. We tell their stories so that maybe those in higher authority can work to make their lives better. I understand that Marketplace is mainly economic and business, but even then they are still watching the economy and letting people know what is happening and explaining how it’s happening – is that not advocacy for the those who have the right to know?

    Political opinions aside, who’s right and wrong aside, it might be time to dig down and really define journalism. Why do we do what we do? Why are we “journalists”? I think I speak for most, we’re pretty intellectual people (not to brag of course). I don’t think we we do this gig because it makes us feel good. I think a lot of us do what we do because it’s important that other people know what’s going on.

  8. kewashburn says:

    While his termination was abrupt and without much explanation, I do understand why Marketplace decided to fire him.
    First, the fact that he calls it both a personal blog and a blog required by his employer is conflicting. While Marketplace’s intention was for it to be an opportunity to develop a “personal blog,” Wallace should have understood that what he posts is held to the same standards as the “objective” reporting he produces.
    While it is totally okay to have opinions, there is a sacrifice that comes with being a journalist. It is especially important to understand what that sacrifice means especially when it comes to the contentious issues that he confronts in his blog post.
    However, I do have a major issue with the way Marketplace went about terminating Wallace and the reasons they give.
    At a time when social media has become such a dominant part of journalism, they need to update this “code of ethics” and clearly state how they expect their reporters to remain unbiased on the internet. That being said, I am taking Wallace’s word on the vagueness of the code, as I do not know the exact language.
    While rules like this should have been more obvious to Wallace, if Marketplace is going to cite its main reason for firing him is that he violated this code of ethics, then it needs to be more specific as to what they expect from reporters when they post on social media.

  9. Daphne says:

    I thought this was really interesting and I don’t think that I’m able to settle on one opinion about it. I understand where Marketplace was coming from in firing Wallace. Objectivity is one of the most important principles of journalism. Not only does it give us readers, but it gives us credibility as well. I understand that Marketplace felt they could not keep Wallace on after he admitted he couldn’t be objective. I do, however, think that they could have handled the situation better and at least had a conversation with him to better understand his perspective and how he felt that would show through in his work for them.

    I think Wallace does bring up an interesting point in his original blog post, that maybe we have become too focused on objectivity. I am by no means saying that objectivity isn’t important and shouldn’t be practiced. I absolutely think it is and that it should. But what Wallace wrote reminded me of a clip from a John Oliver episode where he criticizes the media for being so objective that they sometimes neglect the truth. The example Oliver gives is climate change. In the episode, Oliver says that 99 percent of scientists say climate change is real – that makes it pretty real in my opinion. But there are still people who don’t believe in climate change, and the media has a hand in that. By trying to report objectively on climate change and show both sides of the issue, the media has given people a reason to believe that climate change isn’t real – even though, according to scientists, it is. Reading what Wallace wrote and having watched that John Oliver clip made me think that maybe our biggest priority shouldn’t be objectivity, but truth. Of course, objectivity should still be employed by journalists on issues where there is not a “truth.” But I think we owe it to ourselves and our readers to give them accurate information so that they can be well-informed, even if it does make us seem liberal and one-sided.

    In case you’re interested, here’s the link to the John Oliver clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjuGCJJUGsg

  10. baughsblog says:

    This was an interesting piece about today’s world. While reading, my first thought was that I wish there was a way the author could have kept his job. I feel like Marketplace could have figured out a way to keep him on staff; they could have communicated more, exercised empathy. They should have shown that they care about their reporters as people, not just as journalists. Maybe the blog post was at odds with Marketplace’s policy, but I do not think it was an offense worthy of the punishment given.

    • baughsblog says:

      Also, I understand the firing. I just think Marketplace could have communicated better, and I think they could have figured out a better punishment.

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