September 10, 2014

Once TMZ posted its video of “the punch” — the blow Ray Rice dealt his then fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer Rice, knocking her unconscious and igniting controversy about how the NFL deals with domestic violence — editors throughout the country faced a single question of journalism ethics: Do we post the video?

Poynter’s resident writing coach, Roy Peter Clark, argues that such violent videos need to be made public because they create “the public outrage and outcry that pierces the shield of even such impenetrable institutions of the NFL.”

Janay Palmer Rice in May.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Janay Palmer Rice in May. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

His reasoning points to a growing chasm of compassion, dignity and empathy in U.S. media that has grown from our fault lines of race, class and gender.

What Clark implies is that it’s OK to use a person’s private experience — in this case, one that Janay Rice did not consent to or have knowledge of — if it serves a greater good. I take issue with his failure to mention how media routinely ignore the voices of women of color, especially those who are victims of intimate partner violence — until it happens that one of those women is a public figure.

“The sad part is … We do need the narratives,” said Kimberly Ellis, an independent social media scholar and the author of a forthcoming book called “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter.” “For the sake of preventing additional instances of domestic violence, it’s the black woman’s body that is put on the altar for sacrifice.”

Having diverse voices in the conversation around this video is necessary to contextualize media management decisions on whether to re-post it. As sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes about the forces of race, class and gender that minimize the experiences of black women, “the same situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.”

Using the video without consent violates our ethical obligation to treat Janay Rice and other survivors of intimate partner violence as people rather than vehicles for social change. Their stories — especially the ones from women of color who have been historically overlooked or shamed into silence — need to be told. But how to do so is a complicated question, and one that requires diverse voices as part of formulating an answer.

I’m troubled by Clark’s rationale, and the argument by Poynter’s resident ethicist Kelly McBride makes in his piece, because neither acknowledges any context of the black experience in arguing that this video should be made public.

For people of color in the United States, whether victims of police brutality or intimate partner violence, the moral outrage that greets the release of “gotcha” surveillance videos and photographs peters out often before we are afforded legal redress.

The names of women like Marlene Pinnock, who was repeatedly punched by a California Highway Patrol officer during an arrest, and Jada, the 17-year-old Texas student whose naked, drugged body became the Internet meme #JadaPose come to mind.

Remember them? Their images became public. There was outcry. They’re still waiting for justice.

It’s been 31 days since an unarmed black teen was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. And to date, despite local, national and international outrage and outcry, no one has been indicted. No one has been arrested. The Ferguson Police Department has yet to announce a change in its policy on use of force.

Some good the video, pictures, ongoing media coverage and prolonged moral outrage surrounding Mike Brown’s death have done. Why should we expect that video of a woman being punched by her partner will effect greater social change?

Objectifying Janay Rice and recasting her experiences to serve the interests of elite white men who make the decision to publish and repost the video, to paraphrase Collins, means subordinating a black woman’s humanity in the name of journalism.

It is a misguided and unethical practice.

In the media ethics class I taught as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I emphasized ethical news values that accompany our traditional values of timeliness, prominence, and conflict.

Those values include empathy and dignity. Students learn to question whether their actions will send the victim into further trauma, and if they, as media workers, are acting with compassion. The video footage of Janay Rice being posted to news websites and shown via broadcast is a violation of her most intimately held territory — her body.

“You know what bothered me most? Her lying there on the floor, exposed,” said Rebeccah Lutz, managing editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, a survivor of intimate partner abuse (and in the interest of full disclosure, my best friend).
“The violent act itself was difficult enough to watch, but seeing her exposed and vulnerable, not even able to cover herself, crushed me. She was powerless in that moment, and now the world has seen it.”

Janay Rice was robbed her of her humanity once when Ray Rice hit her. She was victimized a second time when the NFL delayed in taking decisive action. The assault continues each time the tape of her fiancé hitting her is presented as news.

Meredith D. Clark is an assistant professor of digital and print news in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She’s worked as a copy editor, reporter, columnist and community news editor at newspapers including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Tallahassee Democrat.

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Meredith Clark is an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and a monthly columnist for Poynter. You…
Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D.

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