OPINION: How ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ ignores nuance

Most student and career journalists follow the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics — The Student Life included. As a journalist for five and a half years, and a current opinions editor for TSL, I have had this code ingrained in my mind.

SPJ’s code of ethics details four basic principles underlying what the society considers to be fair, ethical journalism. The code’s principles — seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent — are a great starting point for ethics trainings in newsrooms.

Under “seek truth and report it,” though, there’s a sentence that gives me pause. About halfway through the list of bullets is “Give voice to the voiceless.”

Specifically, it’s the word “voiceless,” and the idea that there’s some faction of the population that needs benevolent journalists to give it a voice.

Especially in the internet age, nobody is voiceless. Everyone has something to say, and, regardless of language or ability, everyone can communicate, given the proper supports.

The “voice to the voiceless” attitude is further harmful because it obscures and minimizes the role that powerful institutions, including the media, play in ignoring and silencing the same people who are then called “voiceless.”

One has only to look at the abysmal lack of racial, ability and gender diversity in newsrooms to see that giving voice to the voiceless starts with giving those “voiceless” people jobs.

We also don’t always purposefully seek diversity in our sources when the story allows (like only interviewing white men when covering community reactions to a government policy).

Certainly, we are limited by a lack of diversity in the organizations we cover — if there are no women of color on a city council, one obviously can’t interview them — but when we have the chance to interview people from different backgrounds, we often don’t.

To call people ‘voiceless,’ rather than ‘overlooked’ or ‘unheard,’ because they are not usually covered in the news does a disservice to them and to our profession.” — Donnie Denome PZ ’20, CGU ’21

Another one of SPJ’s principles is to “minimize harm.” If we are to truly minimize harm, our reporting must seek justice for the people most affected by the issues we report on. This is not a call for bias and subjectivity but rather a call to consider who may be most helped and most hurt by our own actions.

Part of reporting and journalism is treating all our sources with respect and dignity. To do this, we must remember that everyone, even people who are generally forgotten about, ignored or simply silenced by the media, has a voice and a story.

To call people “voiceless,” rather than “overlooked” or “unheard,” because they are not usually covered in the news does a disservice to them and to our profession.

Two later points in the code cover the same idea in greater detail and in language that doesn’t minimize the contributions of marginalized groups.

“Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.

“Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.”

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Both these points guide stories involving marginalized groups without minimizing those groups and their voices. The phrase “diversity and magnitude of the human experience” in particular signals that there are so many people with their own lives and stories beyond the walls of our newsrooms that we don’t try to find.

“Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear” just begs the question of why “voice to the voiceless” was in the code in the first place. It says essentially the same thing but with language that is more sensitive and puts more value on the input of marginalized people.

Sorting people into categories of “voiced” and “voiceless,” even if only mentally, sets us up to see some of our sources as more worthy than others. By calling some of our sources “voiceless,” we give the impression that their stories are not considered to be worth our audience’s time to read and hear unless we tell them first.

This, to be clear, is different than seeking to interpret or simplify stories for a lay audience.

Journalists put a significant amount of work into, say, interpreting and covering governmental policy decisions for their audiences. But, it would be difficult to claim that bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. are “voiceless” when it comes to the sometimes life-changing policies they write.

Obviously, some of our stories carry more weight than others. The fact, though, that we choose to include a story for publication means that we feel it carries some value to our greater audience. To do this while considering some of the sources for said story “voiceless” is to minimize the value we give that story.

Especially when it comes to stories about politics, identity and other great social issues that affect people’s livelihoods, we must go into every story and interview ready to treat each source like their information is the crux of our story.

Media by no means exists to be a cheerleader for marginalized communities. But as journalists, if we are to truly “[hold] those in power accountable,” we must work to identify, point out and perhaps remedy power imbalances, not recreate them within our own work.

Donnie Denome PZ ’20, CG ’21 is a 4+1 BA/MPH public health major from Sunnyvale, California, and one of TSL’s opinions editors. As a teenager, they were paid $13 an hour to dissect cow eyeballs.

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