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Friday, November 16, 2018

Columns

Covering taboo topics is the art of journalism


Assistant Cooglife Editor Erin Davis interviews UH President and System Chancellor Renu Khator during Hurricane Harvey. This is journalism in its purest form: Getting the story in the midst of tragedy. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

Journalism is a career that allows people the honor of documenting the world as it is. 

People go through some of the most terrible things you can imagine: murder, homelessness, poverty, war, mental illness and racism. The problem is not only that these things are happening; it is that we are not allowed to talk about them.

As a society, we do not allow ourselves to create spaces to discuss uncomfortable topics. This is why journalists are necessary. We went into the trenches in World War II, uncovered tragedies in the most sacred places — think of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team — and meticulously covered the acts of terrorism that burned down the Twin Towers on 9/11.

We do not pick these careers for our own health. We are not risking our lives, in some instances, to further our news clips. We do this to inform a public that needs and deservesto know.

What stops us from doing journalism is both our own ethics — even though we try to be as objective as possible — and the varying ethics of our readers. Ethics cause people to say what can and cannot be covered.

We are not allowed to speak on lost lives or topics that plague our country, like racism and inequality. The ugly stuff is all off the table.

But I ask: How do we progress as a country and as a society if we do not endure these growing pains? Journalism’s role is not only to inform you. The people who are in front of the lens or behind those words are offering their stories.

The people we read about are bringing us closer to a world that we may never know. Journalism allows us to be sympathetic to people who may be as close as siblings or as foreign as strangers. 

When we cover taboo topics, the ones that might make people uncomfortable, it is important for journalists to have the freedom to tell these stories because otherwise, society will remain silent and people will suffer.

We embark on this endeavor in the hope that our readers will gain a sense of how to talk about difficult subjects. Because our lives will not go untouched by inequity or tragedy, I believe that it is worth it to cover taboo topics.

The controversy surrounding these hard topics always miss the point. The story will get wrapped up in the graphics or pain rather than the issue. This is not the result of bad journalism; rather, it’s the result of what society reacts to first, in an attempt to avoid a larger discussion.

In the same breath, there is a concern for why we do not talk about these sensitive issues. Why haven’t we talked about mental health, racism or poverty? Because the effects of those entities are harsh. It’s uncomfortable, and it hurts.

If we are to truly create a safe space, then we need to start making it acceptable to share and report on these sensitive stories. We must not do them conditionally. Spoon-feeding reality is just a step below altering it.

If you truly want these stories and to be informed, we must also allow the journalists closest to you, the ones who take classes with you, to do that.

This way we can uncover our own trenches, whether they are filled with muddy water, come in the form of new hands or bring us all a little bit closer to reality.

Opinion Editor Dana Jones is a print journalism junior and can be reached at [email protected]

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