Newspaper editors have a responsibility to decide what’s sinister and what’s stupid. And nowhere is this discernment more important than the figuring out how to report and how prominently to play a story of a celebrity or politician’s comments made in their past.
Comedian and actor Kevin Hart will be watching the Oscars in his living room instead of hosting the ceremony this year after his tweets and nasty homophobic remarks from more than three years ago resurfaced. He was already in his 30s and a father to young children when he made those remarks. The coverage and the reaction to those comments got so hot, Hart had to bow out of the lucrative hosting gig.
On the other hand, Kyle Murray, the 2018 Heisman Trophy Winner, got unwanted attention just after receiving the award because of homophobic tweets he made when he was 15 years old. Most of the world moved on after he apologized and there are no repercussions for Murray.
That’s the difference between what’s sinister and what’s stupid. We must start applying this kind of news judgment to behavior, especially when we live in a world where most of what you thought, said and the way you acted two, five or 10 years ago is not difficult to find. (Just Google “When is a celebrity—or politician or public figure—apology enough?” and you will find pages of results.)
In my communication business, I recently completed a case involving a school district superintendent who resigned after hurtful remarks he made about gay and transgender students in a church sermon years before he became superintendent became public. The episode caused a lot of reflection about how news media ought to deal with an issue that is certain to surface frequently. These are some questions you should consider when trying to decide how much to play such stories:
How long ago was the remark, what was the age of the speaker, and who heard it? Look at the Heisman case with Murray. He was a teenager who should have known better, but most men (including your author) have made stupid, insensitive remarks as young people. You grow up, hopefully get smarter, and abandon those harmful and hurtful attitudes. Murray’s Twitter followers likely included his high school friends. Certainly he was well-known in his social circles, but Hart is a popular comedian—and an adult—and had the ability to influence thousands of people with his comments.
What was the intent of the remark? This is asking a lot of editors because it is difficult to know the speaker’s intent in each case. I would look at whether the person was trying to be funny. Were they trying to appease or appeal to what they thought was a private audience? Are the remarks in complete context?
Who is the target? Every journalist knows political figures are fair game, but there are individuals (the president’s children, for instance) who ought to be off-limits. There are certain “third rail” groups as well—groups that have been the object of scorn and oppression for centuries who now are saying “enough.” Consider who is being targeted by the remarks and that person or group’s history of being pushed around.
Is the person’s behavior consistent with the remark? This was challenging in the case I handled. The superintendent’s remarks in the church were hurtful, but his actions as the education leader were exemplary toward marginalized people. He had brought in speakers and emphasized unconscious bias training. He was well-liked by groups and individuals all over the spectrum. The remarks were out of character with his behavior. That is something I would look at when deciding how to play the story.
Did the person apologize? I mean a real apology, not one of those “I apologize if anyone was offended.” You must own it when you screw up. No qualifications on the apology as Hart first attempted. I’d show more sympathy toward a person who didn’t try to excuse their way out of it.
Did the person try to make amends? Does the subject take actions to rectify their remarks with the group or individuals they harmed?
The rules for reporting the past statements or actions of public figures are being written each day. Editors will be asked to thoughtfully assess each situation and I suggest they examine these questions before deciding how to report the story.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.