Stephen Sutton and comforting the afflicting

Bias in reporting is something many in the ruling classes will rail against, as will the public, if you ask them. Every outlet is perceived to have some slant. Reporters are asked “what angle are you taking?” by press officers and interviewees before they utter another word.

The death in the UK this week of 19-year-old Stephen Sutton from cancer is an altogether different example. The notice of his passing, posted by his mother on May 14, had 200,000 messages of condolence after two days. “RIP Stephen Sutton” and variations of it trended on Twitter. Some columnists and/or reporters – it’s difficult to tell with some – described writing their pieces about Mr Sutton’s death through tears. Many news outlets tweeted their own RIP messages while linking to the story, something that is not universal when reporting a death. Is that bias? Is it balanced or fair? Is an organisation merely exploiting hashtags, and is that okay when trying to bring attention to a legitimate story?

When so many purported news outlets blur the lines between reporting and opinion, and so many reporters give opinions via social media, this becomes a question of what bias is acceptable. Purists in North American journalism circles in particular will emphasise “objectivity” above all else. There is no such thing as objectivity when the placement of each word is such a personal choice by the reporter first and then sometimes multiple layers of editors.

One of Tomorrow’s most complicated core principles is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the complacent” (#5). The first part of that raises questions about who is afflicted, what kind of affliction and how does a news organisation offer “comfort”?

Part of our actions as reporters in this context is covered by the other core principle about our professionalism (#4). “Comfort” can come in the form of reporting a public health threat of which a community might be otherwise unaware. And some of it can be as simple as offering a hand and the time to let someone tell their story in their own way, to explore with them, even with a critical eye.

The hardest questions any reporter ever has to ask are to a grieving friend or family member of someone who has died, in almost any context. We knock on the door to find humanity at its most raw, most sensitive and vulnerable.

There is a public appetite for information and for the quotes and stories that touch us. Readers, viewers and listeners seek them out, as both a distraction from frequently inhuman office life and to force ourselves to be reminded of the value of life and people around us. It is guttural. And reporters are human. Some can detach themselves, and even being affected by interviews and stories will rarely affect the quality of reporting.

But comforting the afflicted means sharing human moments. So many people – reporters and non alike – were affected by Stephen Sutton’s very mature approach to life and death. He tapped into the raw “humankin” – an almost innocent base foundation upon which are built life’s choices and consequences and accidents, all of which make up the reporting you see every day. Comfort the afflicted means and requires seeing that universal humankin, and then the deviations and detours away from it.

That’s why it is wrong and a breach of a core journalism principle for news outlets to rank stories according to whether a missing child is white and blonde or a murder victim is a woman or a “prostitute”. “The afflicted” does not rank some humankins as more worthy of comfort than others. Victims who have been afflicted by crime or accident require a measure of respect, dignity and care, all while meeting other journalism duties of reporting accurately etc.

Some journalism theorists argue that all potential sources of bias should be declared in advance by reporters, and social media posts used in evidence of potential bias. This is frequently used to dismiss facts that individuals don’t want to see or hear.

But evidence of being human, of recognising fellow humankind, is not a fatal bias; it is a duty of reporting. Commenting on it blurs the lines between reportage and opinion, but across both, “comfort the afflicted” means the reporter is part of the story. They are present as witness and interrogator and prism through which to reflect the colours of humankins to our readers, listeners and viewers.

Those who met or felt they knew Stephen Sutton were merely doing their jobs when they were affected. Professional reporters should continue to be affected.

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