Thursday, May 03, 2007

White House Press Who Wear 'Tony Snow' Bracelets On The Job Should Be Reprimanded

I read this morning that White House reporters took it easy on press secretary Tony Snow after he returned from an ongoing bout with cancer.

I also read that "at least two of the reporters in the audience wore yellow cancer bracelets with Tony Snow's name inscribed on them," according to Dana Milbank.

Patrick Gavin asks: Should reporters wear Snow bracelets?

The Editorialiste answers: Not on the job.

Ethics is a recurring theme in journalism (and on this blog), and reporters often have different takes on the issue.

Are we people before reporters, or are we reporters before people?

Some journalists say the cancer empathy -- or even sympathy -- is more important.

Some journalists think any sign of sway is condemnable.

So what to do? What do you think?

It should be noted that the White House press office handed out the yellow bracelets.

Does that knowledge change your answer?

In my opinion, I take the middle approach: you can wear the bracelet, but not on duty or in the office. If you sympathize or empathize with Snow, fine, but on your own time. It's an egregious error in thinking, in my view, to wear something on the job that compromises one's neutrality (and integrity, really) -- much less on camera directly in front of the man you're expressing the sentiment for!

Look, I feel for the guy. Cancer's rough. So if a reporter wants to send him a letter on his own letterhead (and not his publication's), fine. We're all human. But as journalists, we've got to have some semblance of neutrality.

We already have neutrality problems with the Correspondents' Dinner. This is even worse. And since many of the White House reporters are seasoned journalists, this is an even bigger slip for someone with extensive experience.

Why? Because they have Snow's name on them. If you'd like to wear a yellow "cancer" band from Lance Armstrong's foundation, that's fine too, as long as you aren't reporting on the foundation. But a Snow-specific band?

That's on the equivalent of wearing a t-shirt with Snow's face screened on it. Is that appropriate?

No. The size of the message doesn't matter. It's the same message.

And to have taken it from the White House press office! That's a handout directly from a PR company, the PR company of the U.S. government. No way, man.

Tell me, readers, in the comments -- what do you think (you may keep in anonymous)? Every journalist should be able to answer this question.


Meranda said...

I wouldn't have worn the bracelet on the job, or probably accepted it. I agree that there is a line you shouldn't cross, and while you may very well empathize with your sources, this isn't the same as wearing something that is as good as signing a petition in his favor.

That said, I do have to say your question: "Are we people before reporters, or are we reporters before people?" Is an entire ethics conflict in and of itself.

You're a reporter assigned to cover a car sinking in a canal. None of the rescuers has arrived yet, you're the only one there and there's no way that person will survive if someone doesn't act now. Do you interfere to save the person's life? Or do you maintain your neutrality and strictly report what happens? Of course you save the person. No story is worth the cost of a life. The answer being, you're human first and foremost, at least you should be.

It is that humanity that allows us to be good journalists. We are able to discern and tell humanity's compelling stories, some of which will rightfully break your heart.

The difficult yet imperative thing is being able to maintain that humanity and sensitivity even as you interact with some of the scum of the earth and are exposed to more horrible things than most people will be in a lifetime. It is maintaining that humanity without sacrificing your integrity that is important.

The Editorialiste said...

@meranda: Thank you for your comment; I really enjoyed reading it.

I must say though -- when I pondered the extent of ethical conflict in this post, I certainly wasn't including life-or-death situations. I glossed over it because I thought at that point there was no question. But it is worth mentioning.

So I agree with you completely, in the example you gave -- a human life is much more important, in this case and in my opinion, than a story. Period.

We work to live; we don't live to work. I believe that maxim can be used when harm or injury is a part of the equation.

But what you said about journalism and what fuels it was both poetic and true:

"It is that humanity that allows us to be good journalists. We are able to discern and tell humanity's compelling stories, some of which will rightfully break your heart."

Just beautiful. I couldn't agree with you more. We're not machines; we can only reach for an ideal of neutrality. In the meantime, that's what makes the job so hard and journalists so weary -- that constant mind-racing self-questioning of "am I doing the right thing?" I think if a reporter didn't tire him or herself so much with that personal question, he or she wouldn't be nearly as good at what they do.

You've added some wonderful thought to the growing conversation on this blog. Please continue!

Thanks so much for reading,
The Editorialiste.

Anonymous said...

You're full of shit. This is stupid. I don't understand why supporting someone in their time of pain and suffering has to be "done on their own time." We interact in our jobs with each other and I think that people will heal faster if they know people are standing behind them, on the job.

Anonymous said...

I would ask do you have cancer? Has anyone close to you have or died from cancer? If I stood in front of the world and anouced I HAVE BRAIN CANCER, would they listen? Simple no! Exposure is what this disease needs no matter what form it presents it's self in. All I can say is thanks for the exposure as shallow as it was. I pitty you if you have to battle this disease as your words will fall on deaf ears to the WORLD!