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Storm over journalist who joined activists on the barricades

A row has erupted over the journalist who took part in the recent rioting in Copenhagen. His editor has defended and praised the hack's journalistic qualities, while some of his colleagues at Danish freesheet Nyhedsavisen are less than impressed (via Mediawatch.dk)...

After Jyllands-Posten's Peter Ernstved Rasmussen berated the journalist in question, and among other things called him a 'militant', his editor, Simon Andersen, mounted a passionate blog defence for the stone-throwing journalist (in Danish). Here's a translated excerpt:

René Fredensborg's reporting is norm breaking, innovative and unique. No other reporter in Denmark has been able to give newspaper readers such a shockingly intimate and insightful description of what goes on in the middle of the 'war zones' during the civil unrest which rocked Copenhagen in recent months. No one. While Peter Ernstved Rasmussen and his pretty colleagues have sought shelter among the police, René has crawled over walls, got glass in his eyes and paint on his clothes, he has stood side by side with the city's biggest violence psychopaths. He has looked after his job. Delivered first class journalism with a style that puts him among his generation's best writers....

However, Andersen's praise has enraged some of Fredensborg's fellow hacks, who voiced their strong disapproval in another blog post (one has to give Nyhedsavisen some credit for lively debates, even among their own rank, in the paper's blogs). A short translated excerpt :

René Fredensborg chose, not only to break the law, he chose to become a part of the story. On the activists' side. In doing so, he broke two of the most fundamental rules of journalism... We have to ask ourselves, how are the readers to take Nyhedsavisen seriously, how are they to believe in what the paper writes, when we allow a journalist who so clearly is a part of the story to cover it?


There's no doubt in my mind that what the stone-thrower did was a disgrace, but I don't think we're going to get at what really is important about the matter by saying "he's unprofessional."

This is one of those cases where keeping the definition of journalist narrow can hurt journalism, both because he can mount slick defenses ("Doesn't every journalist become part of a story in a way? And aren't their stories which a journalist, esp. one writing a feature, might have to be a part of?") and because the purpose of journalism can remain vague enough to think his actions worthy to be emulated.

So we need a way to cut off debate about the rightness/wrongness of his actions. The simple way to do that is this: What is the relation between journalism and the law?

This is murky territory because we don't distinguish between publicity and good journalism generally. Truth is, good journalism provides information 9 out of 10 times that might get us to reconsider the laws we make, or the institutions we have.

Journalism might be antagonistic to the established order, even while defending it, for if someone says "It looks like President Bush's Iraq plan is working" via an article, one is passing judgment while using criteria different from the government's own.

That having been said, it is clear journalism's "antagonism" to the law has moral purpose. It is not about getting swept up in events.

It is about providing information so that way readers can make up their own minds.

And to that end, the journalist himself does not break the law. Information obtained illegally is always a sketchy thing in governments devoted to a free press and freedom of speech. If information is a problem, how much more of a problem is throwing stones at cops?

I think putting the issue that way cuts the stone-thrower's defense from under him: he's not a journalist, he's not even a writer in the sense of having a craft he perfects. He's a criminal who decided to try to be a celebrity. He got his wish. Now he should be punished.

I don't think he was punished, if I remember the initial reactions correctly, only temporarily suspended from his job.

I think you're right in saying that he should be treated as a law-breaker, but I think the story raises all sorts of interesting questions in terms of how far journalists are willing to go to get their scoops.

Going 'undercover' to tell your readers what it feels like to throw stones with militant activists is perhaps so plain silly that it's easy for anyone but the editor in this case to condemn it, but there are many less black and white scenarios that could arise from going undercover with activists and criminals.

Sometimes this is the only way to get at a story, for instance to reveal a criminal network or to show your readers the true scope of militant groups, but how far is the individual journalist willing to go to achieve this?

I also find the editor's reaction in this case interesting - and yes, like it or not, the reporter's account from the barricades is actually a good read. You could of course say there's a long tradition for journalists breaking with the law and/or common morality to get at their stories, going all the way back to the 1880s when a reporter with the Pall Mall Gazette (UK) bought prostitutes to write about child prostitution. This paper's campaign helped the government at the time raise the age of consent from 13 to 16, whereas the stone-throwing journalist only made a few readers laugh, and probably shocked a great many more. I don't mean to sound like a cynical pragmatic here, but I'm fascinated by how we seem to judge these cases by what they achieve.

I hear what you're saying, and you're right - if some cases similar to this achieve something, then what about the cases we disapprove of?

Generally speaking, I feel that law and ethics can't admit the fact of change. We change them, but such things themselves don't have a moral flexibility.

If something isn't legal, there should be a greater good somewhere down the line. Compelling writing is a good, but not the greatest good. I think when Shakespeare talks about his Sonnets lasting forever, there's a bit of a joke in there. What's important is what his sonnets articulate - a teaching on love and virtue - and thus they may last forever.

Absolutely, though, we need journalists to investigate the seedier side of things. In fact, that's a necessity. But perhaps we can distinguish between "putting oneself in a risky position as regards to the law" versus "actually looking to break the law for a story's sake." The defense of Pall Mall would be that they are aiming far beyond a story, they're aiming to chronicle a way of life that needs to be known and addressed.

In some sense, my argument is turning into this: journalism is emphatically not rioting. It is the attempt to use speech, knowledge and deliberation to advance change, if change need be advanced. Rioting is the exact opposite. That's loaded, I know, but I think it can hold up for the most part.

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