I wrote a letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal with regards to an article published a day ago titled “Disney Severs Ties With Youtube Star PewDiePie After Anti-Semitic Posts”. In it I outline what exactly the three journalists did that was unethical, and to some extent illegal, and what parts of the South African Press Code (SAPC) and the International Principles of Professional Journalism (IPPJ) they violated. Please enjoy.
I recently read the article written by three of the Wall street Journal’s reporters – Rolfe Winkler, Jack Nicias, and Ben Fritz – regarding Pewdiepie titled “Disney Severs Ties With YouTube Star PewDiePie After Anti-Semitic Posts”. And I feel absolutely abhorred by what the authors wrote in the article. It might surprise you that my abhorrence is not at the topic they covered, but rather at how they covered the topic, and how – based on what they wrote in the article – they have conducted themselves. Allow me to lay out the various points of and reasons for my abhorrence.
Firstly, the way in which they skewed their representation of Pewdiepie throughout the article. They consistently portray his comments as being anti-semitic, as though his comments were serious and intended to be taken at face value. They fail to properly contextualise this by explaining that these comments were made as satire, and as ‘trolling’ of what has become an ever larger part of the American manstream media, namely, outlets that fail to see humour in comedy, and strike out with almost religious levels of outrage and indignation against anyone that dares to offend their personal sensibilities.
The South African Press Code (henceforth SAPC) states clearly, in sections 1.2 and 1.3, that information must be represented “in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration, or missrepresentation, material omission, or summarisation”. Further, the International Principles of Professional Journalism’s (henceforth IPPJ) second principle states that:
“The foremost task of the journalist is to serve the people’s right to true and authentic information through an honest dedication to objective reality whereby facts are reported conscientiously in their proper context, pointing out their essential connections without causing distortions, with due deployment of the creative capacity of the journalist, so that the public is provided with adequate material to facilitate the formation of an accurate and comprehensive picture of the world in which the origins, nature and essence of events, processes and state of affairs are understood as objectively as possible.”
By failing to contextualise the comments made by Pewdiepie as being comedy, satire, and trolling, they have failed to represent the facts failry and in a b alanced manner, they have also failed to provide the proper context, and to avoid causing distortions. They are thus in violation of sections 1.2 and 1.3 of the SAPC, and the second principle of the IPPJ.
Secondly, the failure of the journalists to contact Pewdiepie for his input on the story prior to publication. In section 1.4 of the SAPC it states that “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication”. Based on Pewdiepie’s reaction to this and other similar articles by other publications, and the lack of his input in the article, it is clear that the journalists have failed to seek his views prior to publication. They thus stand in violation of section 1.4 of the SAPC. This also means that they have failed to represent the matter fairly, further contributing to their violation of sections 1.2 and 1.3 of the SAPC.
Thirdlly, their contact of Disney in regards to the article. They state in their article that they contacted Disney and presented them with the information they present in the article. As explained before, this information is skewed, unbalanced, and constitutes a breach of both the SAPC and the IPPJ. This action is unwarrented and in breach of both the SAPC and the IPPJ.
With regards to the IPPJ, the fourth principle states that “The integrity of the profession does not permit the journalist to accept any form of bribe or promotion of any private interest contrary to the general welfare. The SAPC states in section 2.1 that “The media shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism”.
The authors of the article contacted Disney, not to solicit a response from them, but instead to present their ‘evidence’ to them. From this action it becomes clear that the journalists were serving a personal agenda, namely to negatively impact the reputation and funding of Pewdiepie. This clearly constitutes the ‘promotion of personal interest’ (IPPJ), and the influence of ‘personal … considerations’ (SAPC) ‘that could lead the audiences [sic] to doubt the media’s … professioinalism”. As such they stand in violation of both the IPPJ’s fourth principle, and section 2.1 of the SAPC.
I find it very disturbing that journalists are allowed to write and publish articles that so clearly violate so much of the codes of ethics to which they are sworn. This article is clearly a hit-piece written with the express intent to undermine Pewdiepie’s integrity and finances. This is an action that violates so much of what journalism stands for, that it cannot be called journalism at all. This conduct is not only unethical, but illegal. This article is a clear case of libel, and one that – had this been South Africa – wold be in the courts by now.
I sincerely hope these kinds of actions, and this kind of reporting, is not condoned by the Wall Street Journal, a publication that is supposed to be known, and named, alongside the New York Times for its high standards of journalism.
I would sincerely appreciate a response from the editing team of the Wall street Journal as to this article that outlines their stance on the matter, and how they plan to address the ethical and legal issues I have identified.
An abhorred and concerned journalism student.
I will post a follow up blog-post should I receive a response.