We’ve all seen it. There’s a widely circulated, nationally debated video in which a white high school resource officer body slams a black teenage girl to the ground in South Carollina. The footage is pretty unbelievable and upsetting to watch. But the black community is up in arms over what is perceived to be a lack of support for the young girl.
CNN’s Don Lemon was involved in an on-air debate about the video with CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin during an episode of Wolf Blitzer’s nightly program. Hostin, like much of America, felt the video made things pretty clear. There was an unnecessary use of excessive force, and there was no reason to justify the assault. While Lemon also agreed that there was no reason to justify the behavior, he asked for more context around the situation as the video was only a small excerpt of the whole confrontation. Hostin was appalled that Lemon needed any more evidence than what was shown in the video. Lemon reminded Hostin and the viewers that as a journalist, you need all the facts in any situation before drawing a conclusion. Many have interpreted Lemon’s response as a supportive vote for the resource officer. In turn, a change.org petition has surfaced to have Lemon removed from CNN because he refuses to acknowledge the violence against blacks in America.
Here’s the thing. Don Lemon is one of few very visible black faces in news media. Because of this, the black viewers are forcing him to be a voice for the entire community. Now, he’s being raked over the coals because he didn’t immediately scream racism or proudly display a knee-jerk reaction to the video on national news. I don’t think it’s fair that he has to represent us all just because he exists. He didn’t say anything controversial. He just wanted all of the information.
Lemon is a journalist. He’s not a pundit. He’s not an opinion writer. As a journalist, you have a duty to report the facts. Those facts are to be free of your opinion unless your opinion is being specifically sought out in a particular forum. As a journalist, you need all context before drawing any conclusion. That’s good journalism. You can’t just shout out an opinion without doing your homework. Fact checking must take place, and no journalist should feel comfortable tossing in an opinion without doing so.
By simply defending best journalism practices, I am not defending the resource officer. I think his termination was just, and there’s no excuse for his actions. This girl posed no threat, and the violent reaction to her refusal to put away her cell phone is just outrageous. But I am not a journalist on a national news network. I can immediately jump to conclusions based on what I saw because I don’t have the responsibility of representing a journalistic institution. Don Lemon does, and he acted the way any true journalist should. For this, he does not deserve punishment.
Social media has given a voice to everyone, and the viewers have just as much power to break news stories as the major networks. But journalism is a skill and an art that should not be overlooked due to oversharing and thoughtless tweeting. You may feel strongly about a story, but will sharing your opinion without doing your research cost you your job and reputation? Probably not. This could have happened to Lemon had he immediately shared a passionate opinion in support of the young girl instead of just sharing the facts.
Don Lemon deserves the right to be a journalist and not be confined to being a black journalist. I think that’s fair.