Responsible reporting is a term we use from time to time for a variety of reasons. We are not the only ones who bring this term to reader's attention of course. Under similar names such as responsible broadcasting and responsible journalism, this concept is essential if we are to talk about credibility or public interest. While the term is self-explanatory, unfortunately such concepts are usually disregarded without clear lines or examples. I shall provide an example that sparked the idea for this column, something I encountered during both the event's and the problem's adolescence.
Let's start with laying the foundations and in this case, giving the background. We have a case of domestic abuse. A father with a substance abuse problem, who physically and emotionally tortured his daughter. The mother turned to authorities for help and a lawyer was assigned to their case. Security forces apprehended the father but he was released by the court pending a trial. In other, and cliché, words, he is out there. Naturally, the mother and daughter fear for their lives as they expect retaliation from the father, a common occurrence in domestic abuse cases. As the mother also cares for a bed-ridden grandfather, they can't go to a shelter.
The information I have relayed was from a post on a social media site, authored by the lawyer herself. She had exhausted her resources and was asking for public awareness, calling out to the authorities to provide security for the mother and daughter as well as a call to arrest the man responsible. Along with the post there were a couple of pictures of the torture marks on the daughter as well as a picture of the father holding two knives in his hands.
The call was successful since Daily Sabah also covered the event. Let me quote the conclusion: "The Minister of Family and Social Policies Ayşenur İslam announced on Friday that her ministry filed an objection to the court over the release of the suspect. İslam said the girl, her mother and bed-ridden grandfather living together with the suspect were moved to another house by the ministry and the girl would remain in the custody of social services."
Now with the sufficient background in place, let me close in on the journalistic problem that arose during the night of the event, when it was breaking. I was among the first people to read the post by the lawyer and joined the shout out in order to encourage the authorities to step in. But as the story attracted more readers, several news outlets decided to report on the event with no information other than the lawyer's post. Their news articles consisted of a single introductory sentence and the quote of the entire post. And the pictures of the abuse and of the father, of course. Here is the first part of the problem.
Let's think about the ramifications for a second. What if this post was a smear campaign aimed at destroying someone's credibility? By reporting it without a single fact being checked or researched, the photo of the accused no less could have led to disastrous results. There were quite a lot of people asking the lawyer for a name and address in order to find the man responsible and "teach him a lesson." Thankfully the lawyer kept her cool and didn't give in to those demands. But if she had, we could have read a falsely accused man's death in the newspapers next day. At the very least the man would have lost his job, his credibility and thanks to the hiccups with the right to be forgotten on the internet, his future. And by helping the story to get around and giving it legitimacy by publishing it in mainstream media, our hands wouldn't be clean. The second part of the problem is more severe. As this was a genuine case, the threat was quite genuine as well. A mother and child, without the protection of the police are sitting in their home. As the story gets published in the mainstream media, the father sees his picture and goes after them in a rage. After all, during that time he was still free roaming the streets. Or he goes after the lawyer, holding her responsible. We could have read a triple murder and suicide in tomorrow's paper. Or as the father saw the news articles, he could have escaped to avoid being arrested, tipped by the media. Those possible outcomes were going through my mind during the entire time after reading the early irresponsible news articles. Once again thankfully the lawyer's call to action was successful and the victims are safe as the case continues to be processed in the courts with the backing of both the ministry and the Istanbul Bar Association.
Lastly we see the problem of the victimization in the language in many of these articles and their headlines, but plainly, in the face of the other two, it just pales in comparison.
There was more than one news outlet that acted irresponsibly towards the story but one in particular was named in the lawyer's post. The Cumhuriyet website was amongst the first to publish the story and the lawyer repeatedly requested in her posts that the article be taken down for security purposes. She also said that the mother was made uncomfortable by the article. As of Sunday morning the article is still on the website.
This entire event was a recipe for disaster and a perfect example for irresponsible reporting. I am not questioning the motives of the editors or reporters who first published the article. They probably wanted to help and draw the attention of the authorities. But their methods left much to be desired and could have ended up in horrible consequences. Therefore let this article be a shout out for responsible journalism.