Where Surf “Journalism” Succeeds: Do No Harm
Surf magazine editors have been taking a lot of heat lately for choosing to almost
exclusively cover the most flattering elements of surfing. That might not be such a
big deal (it’s hardly a revelation), except the personal lives of prominent figures in the industry have become exceptionally relevant since the tragic death of Andy Irons in November. Journalists are tasked with reporting fairly and without prejudice, but in surf media, advertisers seem to play an undue influence in sculpting the editorial. Even so, I’d like to think the silence on certain topics has a more dignified justification that has to do with tempering the public’s lurid curiosity.
In October during the Cold Water Classic in Tofino, Canada, I pitched a dicey story to a reputable surf magazine. It involved professional surfer Mitch Coleborn, intoxication, indecent exposure, and elementary school property. It wasn’t pretty, but, hey, it happened. I figured editors drool over controversy like this. Apparently, I was wrong. “We’ve already got someone working on that,” they told me. Hey, that’s okay. As long as someone is working on it, right?
In most other sports, the media obsessively reports on the lives of professional athletes. They recklessly fling juicy, personal stories about public figures into the mouths of an insatiable public. But it’s understandable. If it bleeds, it leads. Curiosity is part of the human psyche, so it’s natural to be interested in the lives of others, especially when they’re ubiquitously on display, but sometimes the focus on athletes’ extra-curricular exploits provides an unproductive distraction. From football to figure skating, everyone remembers the off-field exploits of O.J. Simpson and Tanya Harding (not that homicide and assault are comparable to Coleborn’s case), but in surfing, there is a concerted effort to shelter athletes from bad press. For the most part, surf media leaves its athletes in the ocean. As far as we know, we don’t have a Michael Vick. While I don’t condone Vick or Coleborn’s actions (I think they’re terrible), I’m not sure events of that ilk always warrant coverage.
My question, to myself as much to anyone else, is this: is it always in our best interest to report every unflattering detail of celebrity life?
Journalists have the responsibility to report subjective, unbiased information to the citizenry, and according to Bill Kovach’s The Elements of Journalism, journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. It fosters accountability, not just for the people, but for society as a whole. But another important canon of journalism – and this is where it gets complicated – is called the harm limitation principle. Basically, if a journalist uncovers information that could potentially harm the subject of an article, it must be weighed judiciously before being printed. And if it’s worth printing, what’s the least damaging way to do so while still following that first rule?
The pitch I submitted back in October boiled these concepts down pretty well for me. After reading the few reports I could find, I came to my own conclusion: Coleborn got drunk and did something really, really dumb. And the disparity between the blockbuster coverage I anticipated and the absolute dearth of reporting that ensued was possibly more shocking than the event itself.
It turns out that the magazine either decided to scrap the story or never intended to cover the event at all. At first, I was a bit puzzled. I was curious to know why something like this wouldn’t be of major interest to the surfing world. I blamed the lack of coverage on advertisers, and while I still think that was probably the case, I don’t think the event necessarily warranted the kind of coverage I initially expected. Other forms of media, yes, but surf media… maybe. In any case, I can (kind of) understand the silence.
Some people think that media has an obligation to expose every detail of the lives of public figures. That’s not so. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics offers some sage advice on the matter when it states: “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” In an article written by Surfing’s Stuart Cornuelle, Cornuelle defends his publication’s lack of coverage (in this case, it was AI’s death, but it’s relatable to my point) by saying that he, and surf writers in general, are “not journalists”. Judging by reader response, his defense was widely interpreted as a cop-out (that makes some giant leaps of false logic in the process), but he may have stumbled upon a justification I find more palatable: covering all the gruesome details of AI’s death could be construed as pandering to lurid curiosity. It’s just too bad he said they’re not journalists – instead of taking a more respectable standpoint.
And it’s the same thing in the Coleborn case. Sure, he’s a surfer. Sure, he did something that warranted attention. And it was covered. Just not by surf magazines. But, no matter what reasons surf magazine editors use to justify their inattention to sensitive issues, whether it’s a cop out (we’re not journalists) or a straight-up answer (the advertisers said don’t run it), I believe, in certain cases, that they arrive at the correct outcome: not pandering to our lurid curiosity.
Which begs a possibly more compelling question: who decides when public curiosity is distasteful?
Short answer: it’s complicated…and entirely subjective. Journalism is supposed to be unbiased, but in the incestuous climate of surf journalism, editors often have personal relationships with the subjects of stories, so the issue of lurid curiosity becomes even more delicate. Yes, I realize that there’s a difference between smearing someone and simply reporting the facts, but it’s impossible to objectively report on your friends. Mutually beneficial professional friendships are more convenient without cold, hard facts.
That said, we’re always going to be interested in the lives of others, especially those in the public eye. I wish that weren’t the case, but the stacks of sensationalist periodicals and gossip magazines flying off the Kroger endcaps beg to differ.
I am an avid proponent of journalistic integrity. Honest reporting is necessary to maintain accountability. It’s essential to democracy, but the surf industry is not a democracy. Surf magazines are not comparable to hard news publications, and to expect them to act like they are is simply unrealistic. The balance of power between advertisers and editors is skewed to one side, and from a democratic perspective, it’s tilted dramatically in the wrong direction. Even so, in choosing not to cover the shameful details of surfers’ personal lives, surf magazines often make the correct decisions. They’re just using the wrong logic. And that’s an inconsistency I can live with, because, hey, there are always plenty of pretty pictures.