Actor. Filmmaker. Political activist. According to Wikipedia, those titles are Sean Penn’s occupations. What you won’t find is “journalist”. Why? Because he’s not.
Penn is under fire after Rolling Stone published an interview he did with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most wanted men before this past weekend. The interview was published just two days after Guzman was caught. This means Penn knew of Guzman’s whereabouts without ever notifying authorities.
Before reading the interview, we have an ethical dilemma here. The media has certain protections, including never having to reveal their sources. We are granted this protection as a way to encourage potential sources to speak up without fearing we’ll drop a dime on them when interrogated. Only the press has this protection.
Sean Penn is not a member of the press. He does not get the same protections as the media.
Once you open the article, another red flag springs out before you get to the body of the text:
Disclosure: Some names have had to be changed, locations not named, and an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.
As a general rule, you are never to adhere to the demands of your subject, especially when it involves approval of the final story. Noting that nothing was changed doesn’t lower suspicions. Considering Penn is not a trained journalist, it is reasonable to question whether or not Guzman guided Penn to portray his narrative during the interview.
Trained, experienced journalists know how to take control of an interview. They also know when an interviewee is trying to write the story themselves. Penn is an actor/filmmaker/activist. None of those titles can prepare you for doing good journalism.
Since the internet has become a normal part of everyday life, millions of people without any credentials have declared themselves writers, reporters and journalists. Blogs filled with misinformation or completely false information are going viral and being disseminated as truth. Politicians like Trump are trying to discredit every journalist, save for a few that line up with their narrative.
The general public and unqualified public figures have claimed journalism for themselves, and that is dangerous.
We’re healthy because we trust trained doctors.
We’re educated because we believe in the years of study completed by professors.
If you want to be informed, then you must trust the training and experience of journalists. Much like we recognize we are incapable of diagnosing diseases and teaching at the collegiate level, so too must you understand that reporting information is also a skill acquired through training and experience.
You do you, and let journalists do journalism.