The Call for “Vagrant” Hunters: San Francisco Chronicle’s homelessness crusade raises ethical questions

Categories: Media

When we picked up yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, we were hardly surprised to see yet another gigantic headline hanging over the latest C.W. Nevius column about homelessness, which dominated the front page.

We were, however, a bit taken aback by the “Help us document the problem” box that accompanied the attention-grabbing Nevius piece. “Chronicle readers often write us about scenes on the street or vagrants camping out in front of their homes,” it reads. “If you see something you think would make a good photo, shoot it and send it to cwnevius@sfchronicle.com with your name and a line describing the location attached.”

It adds, “We’ll post many of your photos on sfgate.com.”

(We contemplated sending in a photo of the heel of one of our berry-colored t-strap shoes stomping on the Chronicle, but thought that may be considered uncouth.)

Anyhow, besides finding the call for citizen “vagrant” hunters fairly creepy, we couldn’t help but wonder whether the Chron was treading into sketchy ethical territory. Are these readers asking for permission before making pictures? Are they even confirming whether those being photographed are, in fact, homeless?

“It raises questions,” Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute, said when he learned of the Chronicle’s call for photos. “Journalistic questions, ethical questions, procedural questions.”

Steele said citizens, in most cases, aren’t unbiased observers but rather have strong feelings about homelessness. It’s easy to alter images or recordings so they falsely portray an event or issue, he added.

“There could be serious issues of fairness and accuracy if a news organization posts online or broadcasts pictures, video, sound, interviews that are sent to them by a citizen,” Steele said.

We know, Mr. Bronstein, we know. Citizen journalism is all the rage. But with an emotional issue like homelessness, hopefully it’s not too old-school to think there’s room for some credibility, too.

“News organization, even in these dramatically changing times, should remain vigilant in protecting the integrity of the content,” Steele warned.

--Mary Spicuzza

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