Whose Side Are You On? John Reed and Journalistic Ethics
by Regin Winther Poulsen, 2022 Journalism Fellow
One day nearly four decades ago, Danish journalist Jens Olaf Jersild reported a news segment that would profoundly affect both his career and journalism in Denmark more broadly. Up to that point, Jersild had been a universally respected voice and the host of the evening news program, TV-avisen (The Television Paper). On September 23, 1985, he presented a story about growing xenophobia, interviewing the Greenjackets, a small group of young racists in Copenhagen.
In the segment, Jersild talks to the group while they have a few beers together in Østerbro, a district of the city. As expected, they make xenophobic remarks and even express support for the Ku Klux Klan. Talking about Black people, one opined that "they were not people" and that he believed in the righteousness of slavery. The segment linked these sentiments to a small, albeit growing, discontent among the Danish population in reaction to the government's then-liberal immigration policy. Vandalism and swastika graffiti were, according to the segment, on the rise in Copenhagen. On the one hand, it would have been difficult for Jerslid to examine and analyze these beliefs if he didn't give airtime to these openly racist youths. On the other, he was offering them a national stage from which to express their controversial and hate-filled opinions. The dilemma, as it turned out, was not merely a theoretical one. The segment culminated in more than a debate about journalistic principles—it ended in a decade-long legal battle.
After the news, three participants in the interview, as well as Jersild and the news director of the show, Lasse Jensen, were reported to the police. The three interviewees faced charges for their words themselves, while the journalists were accused of “aiding and abetting the three youths”. They were found guilty in the city court and issued a fine. The journalists appealed the decision to the High Court (Landsretten) and later to the Supreme Court. The decision, however, was upheld in both instances. In the latter case, the highest court in Denmark argued that the news program had insufficient informative value to justify amplifying the voices of the Greenjackets, a point underscored, in their view, by the fact that the interview was not live but had been edited prior to broadcast. The Supreme Court, then, felt the journalists had knowingly and actively spread hate speech.
This question—how to discuss extremism without inadvertently supporting it—came back to me during my FASPE trip. These days, as we witness the rise of far-right movements around the globe, the problem seems more salient than ever. How does one explain the problems of growing extremism while at the same time not spreading the beliefs of the extremists? Would it have been sufficient for Jersild to inform the audience that right-wing extremism was growing? Did he not need to show the young groups mobilizing? If so, how could he convince them without details? Should he have pushed back harder on their views, not letting the young Nazis get a word in edgewise? Is the alternative mere silence?
Over the course of my trip, these questions took on an even more personal tone for me as a journalist. How fine is the line between platforming and explicating? How would I have covered the growth of the National Socialists if they were on the rise today? How would I interview Nazi leaders, and what kinds of quotes would go into such an article? Would I consider the consequences of letting extremists express themselves to my readers? And no matter how much I pushed back, if I asked all the right questions and somehow wrote the perfect article: could I then be held responsible for spreading hate speech? A similar dilemma has often been raised when covering fake news, as studies show that even though you explain to listeners that claims are untrue, you might still be spreading the news by mentioning it.1 Many of us might also be emblematic of the “mainstream news elite,” such that if we say something, it becomes just an example of how we “hide information from the masses.” On the other hand, there is this tantalizing idea that I could help by shining light into the darkness. Could people who believe in extremist ideas or fake news be encouraged if I debunk fake news or explain the crazy views of extremist groups that might have become mainstream themselves in some cases?
While examining the case of Jersild, it struck me that the language in the broadcast is so extreme that even the thought of using it to educate makes me beyond uneasy. The “N-word,” for example, occurs often. Norms today vary from those then, but I still feel Jersild could have covered the incident more responsibly—the language is just that crass and hate-filled. On the other hand, Jersild should not have been sentenced and fined. Is it a crime to do a noble act imperfectly? And I certainly do not believe that courts should have the authority to argue if something is newsworthy enough to justify covering it. In my own work, I often think that I can't be held entirely accountable for its impact. An author cannot control every use to which their writing is put. I can do my best, but after I press publish, the piece isn't mine anymore. But then I wonder: is this just a survival tactic, a way to shirk my own responsibilities? Did these same questions not plague Jersild?
As you can see, I really don't have an easy answer. I vacillate. But that’s what has made FASPE so valuable: I'm now more relaxed in knowing that there aren't any straightforward answers. The discussion between the other journalists on the trip convinced me that our discipline must work as a team, querying each other, working with editors—doing whatever we can to hash out these difficult questions. Often, we did not reach a consensus in the FASPE groups, but that seems to me proof that we don't have to agree. We're not scientists looking for one cure for a disease. We're just trying to be better, to be truth-tellers in a hard world. And if we do that, if we do what we can, I remain convinced more than ever that we cannot fret about how others will use or react to our work. If no one reads our stories, that's fine. If a lot of people do, that's fine too. People will read what they want into what we publish—we can’t change that. We can only do our best.
And in the end, Jersild got off the hook. He refused to accept the fine. He even took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where he was acquitted. The judges argued that the journalist had only been trying to portray reality. Wasn’t that his job, after all? In the end, the court saw the journalist’s freedom to speak the truth as a fundamental element of a free society. We, as journalists, seek to do just that—speak the truth. To pursue this goal means to be ethical. I can’t know how I would have covered the rise of Nazism in the 30s, but I can know the principles that should guide coverage should such a thing happen now.
Regin Winther Poulsen was a 2022 FASPE Journalism Fellow. He is a freelance journalist currently residing in Brazil.
- “How to Correct Misinformation According to Science,” Short Wave, NPR, https://www.npr.org/2020/05/21/860219481/how-to-correct-misinformation-according-to-science?utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&fbclid=IwAR0tyBZIam2Tkxl5Jdre_DJjlCjEzqn9hps7YulMbFpwmWom0e7-OS5G_ng&t=1660731537116.