In journalism, editors and reporters inevitably confront ethical dilemmas. From national stories about bombing suspects to local stories about incendiary student preachers, journalists must consider how stories will affect their audiences.
But of course, they’re called dilemmas because they are multi-faceted and deeply complicated.
On Wednesday, the Arizona Daily Wildcat published a story about a student preacher in front of the Administration building, and the campus response to him.
The student, Dean Saxton — also known as Brother Dean Samuel, a junior studying classics and religious studies — held a sign that read “You deserve rape,” which drew heated criticism from onlookers. Many filed written complaints or called the Dean of Students Office.
Students also filed reports to the University of Arizona Police Department regarding incidents between Saxton and passersby who chose to physically confront him.
The Daily Wildcat’s story on Saxton, his sermon and the response to it ran above the fold, with a large picture of him holding the sign next to two other students holding signs to counter his message, including one that said, “Nobody deserves rape.”
Many readers responded to the story’s content, but some also questioned the Wildcat’s decision to report the story. Online commenters and letter writers asked how Wildcat editors could endorse Saxton’s message by presenting the story the way they did.
And therein lies the question editors grappled with on Tuesday as we put together the paper. By covering the issue, are we validating Saxton’s sermon? Should we risk suggesting that we condone a particular message in order tell a story?
But if we only reported positive news on campus, would we really be doing our jobs? We struggled to come up with clear-cut answers, but found only one: No.
We would have failed to do our jobs as journalists if we had simply ignored Saxton’s message.
Some messages, like those of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, are designed to draw attention and provoke ire. The Supreme Court has ruled that even hate speech, like the message sent by Saxton’s sign or the WBC, is protected except under very specific conditions. And ignoring those messages doesn’t silence them. They don’t just go away if we pretend they’re not there.
This led us to yet another question: How do we tell this story in a way that is responsible?
From examining the story’s lede to the photo to the placement of the page, editors weighed the implications. Originally, editors considered a photo that only featured Saxton and his sign, but the photo that ultimately ran featured Saxton with two students promoting the opposite of his message: Nobody deserves rape.
To the Wildcat editors, this photo told a more balanced, and therefore more complete, story — one that sheds light on a major problem and deals with it in a more direct and effective way than simply ignoring Saxton.
Is it regrettable that, as some readers pointed out, the photo did not come with any sort of trigger warning for sexual assault survivors? Yes. Has journalism, as an entire industry, found a foolproof way to address potentially triggering topics? No, not yet.
But isn’t this conversation a sign that we are moving in the right direction?
As editors discussed how to respond to readers’ concerns on Wednesday, we circled around another question: When in the history of anything has ignoring a problem solved it?
Whether it’s bullying on the playground, or injustices committed before the Civil Rights movement, problems do not go away simply by closing your eyes and wishing them away.
You cannot take someone’s First Amendment freedoms away. But you can fight hate speech with more speech.
Rape is a violent crime. A culture that tolerates rape is a problem, nationally and on campus. It demands solutions.
How do we begin to identify those solutions? We talk about them.
— Editorials are determined by the Daily Wildcat editorial board and written by one of its members. They are Kristina Bui, Dan Desrochers, K.C. Libman and Sarah Precup. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter via @WildcatOpinions.