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Willson: Personal beliefs should take a backseat in journalism

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

 Context: Last week ESPN journalist Jemele Hill issued a series of tweets condemning Trump as a “white supremacist.” The sports network was quick to denounce Hill’s actions, saying it did not agree with them. Hill, a co-host of “SportsCenter,” responded by posting an apology to the network, although she did not overtly apologize for expressing her “personal beliefs.” Jemele Hill is by no means the first media figurehead to criticize the president, but the backlash she received from ESPN has opened up discussion about whether personal ideology has a place in journalism.

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There are many occasions when it is appropriate to express one’s personal beliefs. Jamele Hill, as a professional sports journalist representing a major news network, should know that Twitter is not the place to criticize political officials, no matter how abhorrent their behavior. In careers with considerable reach and influence, it is crucial that professionalism takes priority over personal opinions.

If Hill wishes to share her opinions on executive performance, she must do it responsibly by prefacing her statements with an explanation that what follows are individual beliefs unrelated to the views of her employer. Doing this creates an environment for continued conversation and debate while preserving the supposed political neutrality of ESPN.

Failure to preface, though, weakens Hill credibility as a journalist and casts a polarizing light on her employer network. ESPN responded by issuing a statement that said although it accepted Hill’s apology for expressing “personal opinions,” she had no right “to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN.” To that extent, the network has a strong point.

The Society of Professional Journalists has an official Code of Ethics that all reporters, writers, columnists, etc. should strive to uphold. Among other things, the Code asserts that journalists should treat all “sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” Trump may seem to be an egocentric, racist misogynist, but he’s still a human.

This is why it’s also important to note that the Code stresses consideration of “the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.Hill pegging Trump as a white supremacist has already had negative effects on her professional standing. Some might even argue that calling Trump a white supremacist without irrefutable evidence is a form of misinformation, an infraction no good journalist wants to commit.

As an African American woman, it makes sense that Jemele Hill is incensed by the president’s recent remarks and responses to racially charged incidents, from Charlottesville to the Black Lives Matter movement. Regardless of one’s ethnicity, there’s no question that some of Trump’s words and actions have been reprehensible.

It is obviously a gross overreaction to call Hill’s actions a “fireable offense,” as was done by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But, as a professional journalist, Hill needs to put her occupational obligations first. Sometimes this means refraining from voicing your opinion on something about which you feel strongly. Or,it means setting your own beliefs apart from those of your corporation, and proceeding with discussion accordingly. Let’s just hope those discussions create healthy debate, rather than media circuses.

Columnist Lauren Willson can be reached at letters@collegian and online at @LaurenKealani

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