Harry Potter’s Lessons for Journalists

The following article originally was published August 6 by Grand Junction’s Free Press.

Harry Potter’s Lessons for Journalists

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

Journalism plays a critical role in a free society. However, just as politicians and private individuals sometimes do the wrong thing, so can journalists sometimes get their facts wrong or act unethically. Consider a few examples from recent headlines.

After internet writer Andrew Breitbart released a video of Shirley Sherrod, an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, showing Sherrod making apparently racist comments, she was fired. But the video edited Sherrod’s comments out of context; her actual story was about how, many years ago (before her government job), she overcame bias to assist people regardless of race.*

During brief remarks at the Independence Institute’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) party, U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck said people should vote for him because he does “not wear high heels.” Many took his comment out of context, calling him sexist. In fact he was telling a dumb joke in response to unrelenting gender-based attacks from his primary opponent, Jane Norton.

Colorado pundit Ross Kaminsky initially reported that he could not find college records of governor candidate Dan Maes; it turned out the school’s database was faulty. Admirably, Kaminsky quickly updated his account and apologized to Maes.

Even good journalists sometimes get things wrong, and some journalists act unethically, recklessly or intentionally distorting the facts.

Fortunately, some great advice about journalistic ethics may be found in the Harry Potter series of novels, soon to gain another round of publicity from movies due out this year and the next. Journalists would do well to read the series, particularly starting with the fourth book.

In the character of Rita Skeeter, the Potter novels offer a great example of how not to do journalism. Skeeter makes up quotes, takes comments and events out of context, and illegally listens in on people’s private conversations. She cashes in on Harry’s popularity by writing distorted, sensationalistic stories — just as many media outlets do to real-life celebrities.

In the fifth Potter book, Order of the Phoenix, the Ministry of Magic grows corrupt, controlling Hogwarts school and manipulating the Daily Prophet, the major newspaper for wizards. The Minister of Magic becomes paranoid, fearing Harry and his allies while ignoring the real threat of the evil Voldemort. Thus, the ministry leans on the press to vilify Harry and ignore Harry’s evidence about Voldemort.

During this period, Harry and his friends learn to read the manipulated media “between the lines” for tidbits of real news, and Harry also reads the Muggle (non-magical) news for hints.

Over the final two books, the Ministry falls under the control of Voldemort, a vicious tyrant. It is during this period that the controlled media function as the propaganda arm of a dictatorship. Harry’s allies use pirate radio to communicate news of the resistance.

Many of Harry Potter’s lessons for journalists, then, are negative: don’t be corrupt like Rita Skeeter, and fight government censorship and control of media.

However, the Potter books also offer a constructive vision of journalism as a means to tell the truth. During the period of Ministry corruption and censorship, the editor of the Quibbler, a usually-unreliable tabloid paper, agrees to publish an interview with Harry, a first-hand witness to Voldemort’s return to power. Harry’s friend Hermione Granger conscripts Skeeter to write the account and for once report the truth.

When Skeeter complains that nobody takes the Quibbler seriously, Hermione replies that many readers are smart enough to tell the difference between good reporting and bad, whatever the source. She points out that the Prophet’s stories have “gaping holes” in them, leaving readers hungry for “a better explanation of what happened.”

Thankfully, in our part of the world, media remain mostly free from government manipulation. Citizens can help keep journalism honest by doing their own research and writing letters, op-eds, and blog posts. Citizen journalists need only recognize that they are ethically bound by the same rules of fair play and contextual reporting of all the relevant facts.

Ironically, despite the Potter novels’ constructive view of journalism, a 2008 paper in the American Communication Journal blasts the novels for their allegedly “extremely negative depiction of journalism” that “could have an adverse effect on child readers.”

The paper takes quotes out of context and omits important facts about the novels, thereby committing exactly the sort of errors the Potter novels warn against. You can read Ari’s complete rebuttal of the paper at http://tinyurl.com/pottermedia, located at the web site about Ari’s book, Values of Harry Potter.

The ultimate message of the Harry Potter novels is simply this: the truth matters. To get at the truth, we must consider all of the relevant facts, avoid temptation to omit uncomfortable facts, and consider the full context of a story. If we pursue the truth, whether we are professional or citizen journalists or consumers of the news, we can help build a better, more just society.

* The original video released by Andrew Breitbart does include a segment from Sherrod about changing her mind about not helping a white farmer. Breitbart’s post also includes the following addition: “Correction: While Ms. Sherrod made the remarks captured in the first video featured in this post while she held a federally appointed position, the story she tells refers to actions she took before she held that federal position.”