Call Them Irresponsible: Anti-"snitch" Support in the News Media
Reporting the misconduct of others is a critical part of maintaining ethical and legal norms— in societies, institutions, organizations and professions. It is, in fact, an ethical duty, and one of the hardest. It seems to contradict the Golden Rule (we wouldn’t want others to report us), as well as well-learned playground codes: nobody likes a “snitch.” So strong is this resistance to the basic duty to report misconduct that it persists even when the stakes are great. Good doctors and nurses hesitate to report incompetent, drunk or reckless colleagues, in the mistaken belief that what they would be doing is “wrong.” Good police won’t expose bad cops nobody wants to be seen as a “rat.” Even though lawyers are required to report serious misconduct by colleagues, they almost never do unless the unethical lawyer is an adversary. Dozens of representatives and staff members in Congress knew that Rep. Mark Foley was behaving inappropriately to pages, but no one reported him for years. Many suspected that imprisoned former Rep. Duke Cunningham was taking bribes, but they kept quiet too. All of these individuals betrayed their communities, professions and culture when they let wrongdoing go on under their noses.
Now law enforcement is faced with a destructive “anti-snitch” attitude in the inner cities that gives killers, gangsters, drug dealers and thieves free reign. “Don’t be a Snitch!” is a slogan in the schools and a message in rap songs. This has to be stopped. If we want an ethical, honest, safe culture, we have to declare it, fight for it, and enforce it. We must teach our children that there is nothing wrong with alerting authorities to those who break rules and laws—to the contrary, it is the right thing to do. Allowing negative words and implications to define the reporting of misconduct is affirmatively destructive to any culture’s effort to encourage good behavior and discourage bad.
This being so, what are we to make of the headlines that major news organizations, inspired by the words of the Associated Press, recently used to announce the Regal movie theater chain’s introduction of a hand-held device that will allow movie-goers to call for theater personnel when audience members persist in disrupting the show with loud comments, laser pointers, and other rude conduct? Regal calls the small pagers “Guest Response Systems,” and it is an excellent service, especially for people who are reluctant to walk over to loud-talking teenagers and tell them to have their cell phone conversations in the lobby. But the concept clearly offends the juvenile ethics of many journalists, headline-writers and their editors.
“Regal offers tattletale device” wrote USA Today. “Theaters Issue Tattling Device to Movie-Goers,” said Yahoo! Tech. “High-Tech Tattling Hits Movie Theaters” was used on multiple websites. Sue Stock, a reporter for the Raleigh News-Observer, wrote this in a story headlined “Devices Turn Moviegoers into Monitors” (and we all know how we felt about monitors)
If you want to talk on your cell phone in the middle of “Spider-Man 3,” you’d better think twice. One of your fellow moviegoers could be ratting you out
The phrase “rat out” was popular in reporting the story, especially on TV news websites: “Movie Patrons Can Rat Out Rude Behavior”—KSAT, San Antonio; “Regal Entertainment Group, which owns several Chicago area theaters, is launching a program to give patrons the ability to rat out bad audience members ” CBS2 in Chicago. This pervasive negative tone was primed by the AP release, which began, “Are you fed up with rude movie patrons? A major theater group is offering a way to tattle on them.”
Is it conceivable that these media reports just made unfortunate word choices, and that the writers were not signaling their distaste for a device that encouraged the public to report disruptive audience members? No, it isn’t. Using pejorative terms like “tattling,” and “ratting out” show the ethical orientation of these reporters, which holds that reporting wrong-doers is wrong, and that the jerks shooting laser pointers at the movie screen are being victimized if someone summons the manager. It shouldn’t be a surprise; this is a profession that takes pride in protecting the identity of confidential sources, even when the sources are active criminals. Maybe a “no snitching” ethic is reasonable within the narrow context of investigative reporting; I tend to disagree, but that is a debate for another time. But for reporters to allow the special circumstances of their work distort their representation of basic responsible citizenship is unconscionable. The national culture such warped reporting cultivates is not simply one in which it is no fun going to the movies. It is also a culture in which “the right thing to do” is to keep quiet about the drug dealer next door, the witness-coaching law partner in the next office and the drunk surgeon you work for.
Our job yours and mine is to “rat out” these irresponsible reporters, editors, websites, TV stations and newspapers. We need to stop their culture from damaging ours.