By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
A Halloween display depicting a lynching of three figures hanging from a tree near Clarksville, Tenn., posed one of the most disturbing and sensitive ethics cases handled by the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.
The origins of Halloween dates back 2,000 years to a Celtic festival marking the end of summer and the start of winter, when it was believed ghosts of the dead returned to earth and caused trouble.
The racist Halloween display in Clarksville was causing serious trouble for Rob Selkow, site manager and news director for ClarksvilleNOW, a digital newspaper/news website affiliated with six radio stations serving middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky.
A passerby took a cell phone photo of the hanging scene in a residential area of the Fort Campbell U.S. Army base and sent it to the newspaper.
A startling scene
It showed three blood-spattered figures with black heads hanging from a tree, their hands tied behind their backs – a male, a female and a child.
“What happened,” recalls Selkow, “I got the photo on a smart phone. It looked like a scene out of (the movie) ‘Mississippi Burning,’ with “black figures being hanged.”
Selkow’s first thought was, “we needed confirmation,” and he called the Army base public affairs office.
Public Information Officer Brendalyn Carpenter said her office was notified of a Halloween display that was “offensive in nature” and authorities were sent to investigate. The homeowner on the Army base was informed of community concerns and he removed the display, with apologies.
“Displays of an offensive nature are not reflective of Army values and the family-friendly environment provided for employees and residents of the Fort Campbell community,” Carpenter said.
With that confirmation, ClarksvilleNOW published the photo, which went viral. It was seen nationwide.
It was “the most powerful image we ever published,” said Selkow, and the biggest story for paid use. “That was the first one we got that had legs.”
But that is not the end of the story.
A soldier calls
The resident who put up the Halloween display, a soldier, called Selkow, insisting on the removal of the controversial photo from the ClarksvilleNOW website.
“You need to take that down; there was nothing racial to that,” the soldier demanded.
“I said, we’d be happy to discuss it,” answered Selkow, but the soldier would discuss it no further. “He just wanted us to take it down. The Army post was not happy with it. It does not make them look good.”
This is a good time to step back and consider the setting in which the furor over the Halloween effigies happened. Stories do not happen in a vacuum. History sometimes plays an unseen role in today’s events. The Clarksville area has a turbulent and tragic history.
The Fort Campbell Army base covers 102,414 acres straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border between Hopkinsville, Kentucky and Clarksville, Tennessee. It is home to the 101st Airborne Division and roughly 2,500 officers and 45,000 enlisted personnel.
Started in 1942, Fort Campbell is about 10 miles from downtown Clarksville. Troops from Fort Campbell have deployed in every military campaign since the post was created.
Named for war hero
Clarksville was founded in 1785 and named for Gen. George Rogers Clark, frontier fighter and Revolutionary War hero, and brother of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
By the start of the Civil War, planters in the area depended on enslaved African American workers to grow tobacco, one of the major commodity crops. In 1861, Clarksville and Montgomery county voted unanimously for Tennessee to secede and join the Confederate States of America.
Fighting for the Confederacy, Clarksville lost a large part of its male population and many Clarksville men became Union prisoners of war.
Confederate army camps
The state was home to three Confederate States army camps.
Neighboring Hopkinsville also supported the Confederacy, and in Civil War battles was occupied at least half a dozen times by Confederate and Union forces.
Tennessee once was heavily inhabited by native Americans. But native populations were forcibly moved to the south and west. From 1838 to 1839, nearly 17,000 Cherokees were forced to march from “emigration depots” in Eastern Tennessee to Indian Territory west of Arkansas. This became known as “The Trail of Tears.” An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died during the eviction march.
By the 1900s, Tennessee tobacco growers were fighting among themselves in what became known as the “Black Patch Tobacco Wars.” A planters’ protective association of Kentucky and Tennessee imposed a boycott on tobacco sales to drive prices up. An organization known as the “Night Riders” punished farmers who tried to skirt the boycott and sell their tobacco secretly, burning down barns and destroying tobacco fields to terrorize farmers and tobacco brokers into submission.
The official motto of Tennessee is “Agriculture and Commerce.” Its unofficial nickname is “The Volunteer State,” stemming from the War of 1812 when many Tennessee men answered the governor’s call to enlist.
Rigors of the tobacco trade, Civil War battles, southern sympathies and training for wars all mark this part of America.
Take it down
But history was not foremost in Selkow’s mind. The soldier’s pleas to take down that embarrassing photo nagged at the news director. He wondered what the fairest and most ethical thing to do would be?
So he called AdviceLine and spoke to Hugh Miller, an experienced AdviceLine advisor.
After viewing the photo, Miller read the story that appeared with it. Miller “went line-by-line with me and checked it for fairness,” said Selkow. The story carried two bylines, his and fellow reporter Nicole June.
Adviceline keeps reports on every call or inquiry it gets for ethics advice. Here is what Miller wrote in his report:
“We discussed the issue of editing a story already published. In general, this is a bad idea, I argued. Permitting it opens all kinds of doors to amending a public record, which makes those records not facts but completely fungible containers. The time to decide what goes in a story is before one publishes it. If it needs emendation later, publish a correction.”
The photo had been cropped to focus on the display and exclude details showing the location of the house as much as possible. Miller argued against “ex-post-facto manipulation of an image,” which “should not be done without informing the reader.”
On that point, Selkow responded: “We cropped the photo to make it so someone would not know whose home it was. I know you are not supposed to crop things, but I would do it again.”
Back to Miller’s report: “Next, we discussed harm to the family. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics asks us to ‘recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.’
“But clearly, this display was meant to draw attention. And the arguably racist appearance of such a display, and on the grounds of a military base, was clearly a matter for public attention. Given this, was the story causing the family undue or uncalled-for harm? The language of the article was neutral and fairly objective, hardly incitatory. The reporters agreed. We decided that, if they wanted to deal with the issue of the family’s harassment, the family should be approached for a follow-up story, and the base public affairs office asked for comment.”
Selkow did not take down the photo.
“It was over and done. Nothing was done after the (soldier’s) call. We knew we were not going to take it down. It was going to stay put.”
After talking with Miller, said Selkow, “I was able to stand firm on the story and know I was acting ethically and responsibly in regard to the person whose home was in the photo and gave them every chance to respond and talk to us.”
Since the soldier would not discuss his motives for putting up the display, said Selkow, “my hands were tied.” Though he admitted to “a queasy feeling when it strikes you how your work is affecting people’s lives. In that instance, it affirmed the journalistic decision that we made and instructive in a number of ways to deal with sensitive stories.”
Contacting AdviceLine “was very helpful to me that day,” Selkow added, and pointed out that he cites the tricky Halloween display event when speaking to journalism students. “I bring it up as a case study.”
ClarksvilleNOW is owned by Saga Communications, Inc., a broadcast company with properties in 27 mid-size markets.
The Halloween display story touched off a vigorous debate in the online comment section, including remarks about racism and slavery. The Clarksvillenow.com website covers a population of about 200,000.
AdviceLine first reported on the Clarksville story in 2016. Since then, it has become an example in an issue of growing interest: Removing archived online stories, either because they are embarrassing or circumstances changed over time. That could include a long-ago arrest or a divorce that changes somebody’s marital status. People sometimes want history erased.
As Miller pointed out, journalists are historians who leave accurate records of local and global events. Just because it is technically possible to delete parts of this online history does not mean journalists should.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.
Visit the Ethics AdviceLine blog for more.