Students, Professionals Explore Social Justice Journalism

12th Annual Poynter KSU Media Ethics Workshop

The Kent State community and media and communication professionals gathered to explore the ethical responsibilities of covering social justice issues at the 12th Annual Poynter-KSU Media Ethics Workshop held Sept. 22, 2016. The workshop was hosted by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication's Media Law Center for Ethics and Access.

The workshop’s first session, “There’s Something in the Water: Finding, Reporting & Following the Flint Lead Crisis,” discussed the media ethics of the Flint water crisis.  Moderated by Bruce Winges from the Akron Beacon Journal, the session featured four panelists: Lindsey Smith, a reporter at Michigan Radio and producer of the Flint water crisis documentary “Not Safe to Drink"; LeeAnne Walters, a Flint resident and activist; Thom Fladung, vice president of Hennes Communications; and Kate Joyce, a pediatric public health investigator.

Walters began the session with a first-hand account of what she and her four children endured, highlighting the response of local, state and federal authorities as they failed to provide Flint citizens with safe water.

“I was told I was a liar and that I was stupid; that this was not my water and no one was going to believe this came from my tap,” Walters said. “We were told that everything is fine; our water is safe.”

The conversation then shifted to discuss the role of journalists, public relations professionals and communicators in crises like Flint.

“You can’t communicate your way out of a problem. The point of professional communications is to communicate about the problem openly, honestly and with as much candor as you can,” Fladung said. “Tell the truth, tell it all, and tell it first.”

The next panel discussion centered on covering unfolding tragedy, with Tom Huang, enterprise editor at the Dallas Morning News; Keith Campbell, deputy managing editor at the Dallas Morning News; Frank Burt, videographer at WESH Orlando; and Shoshana Walter, of the Center for Investigative reporting.

With the recent Orlando Pulse nightclub and Dallas police shootings as a backdrop, much of the conversation was based on moments when crises and social justice intersect.

“We knew that the (Dallas police) shooting was, in and of itself, a story to cover,” Huang said, “but there were many underlying issues that brought people to the street for the peaceful protest right before the shooting. … What brought people to that protest, involved social justice issues.”

Burt, who was on the scene as the end of the Orlando massacre was unfolding, described the ethical decisions he had to make while filming.    

“It’s a life-changer, when those emotions and all those things are coming at you,” he said. “Professionally, I was prepared; it’s what I do. But the gravity of it — emotionally — it’s still kind of tough.”

Keynote speaker Jose Antonio Vargas began his conversation about immigration with a personal story of coming out of the closet twice: first as gay then as an undocumented American.

Vargas discovered he was undocumented when he went to the DMV to get his driver’s license and the worker handed his papers back, telling him they were not real. Vargas still went on to college and to work at the Washington Post, despite being an undocumented American.

Vargas published his story about being an undocumented American in an article by The New York Times Magazine in 2011. Despite the media exposure, the Department of Homeland Security has yet to contact Vargas.

“What I thought was a risk ended up being the most liberating thing I had ever done,” said Vargas.

Vargas challenged the audience to question their frame of mind. He explained that America has accepted the frame that immigrants make the country unsafe. In April of 2011, Vargas created Define American with help from Jake Brewer, Jehmu Greene and Alicia Menendez to combat that mindset. Define American is a nonprofit media and culture organizing whose mission is to shift the conversation about identity, immigrants and citizenship in America.

“Can we have this bigger conversation about what really defines citizenship? When I finally get those pieces of papers, they won’t make me more of a citizen than I already am,” Vargas said.

The final session of the Poynter KSU Media Ethics Workshop covered safe spaces on college campuses.

Safe spaces workshop moderator, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Katy Bartzen Culver, and four panelists, journalist and assistant professor of international journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Shaheen Pasha; JMC professor and law expert Mark Goodman; and JMC students Brenna Parker, '17 and Marcus Donaldson, '17, explained the concept of safe spaces in relation to JMC curriculum.

The panelists covered the difficulty in using trigger warnings in class. A trigger warning alerts the audience that the writing, video or other content contains matter than can cause distress for some.

“For journalists, your whole life is literally going to be a trigger,” Pasha said.

Poynter Vice President for Academic Programs Kelly McBride closed the workshop and challenged the audience to reflect on the conversations of the day and create a personal plan for change.

“I want you to think about one thing you can do institutionally,” said McBride, “one thing on an institutional level that could advance the cause of social justice journalism.”

To watch the sessions, visit

POSTED: Friday, September 23, 2016 - 2:47pm
UPDATED: Friday, September 23, 2016 - 3:16pm
Arkayla Tenney-Howard, '19, and Haley Keding, '17