Like many in the newspaper business, I keep up with journalism news by reading Jim Romensko's blog on the very helpful Poynter site. Anyone who thinks that the media world leans left will have their suspicions confirmed by reading Romenesko, but I find there's no better site with interesting news about the media business. Something he posted yesterday caught my eye:
Billie Stanton says her journalism profs at the University of Arizona 30 years ago were relentless about balance and objectivity. "Every angle must be covered, and if you had any bias, it better not show," she writes. "This credo served me well for many years. When some talented Denver Post reporters covered an anti-gay referendum later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, their bias showed. Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give the homophobes' side equal credence."
Stanton made the point in a column in the Tucson Citizen about why she is glad to be on the editorial page. But it just cracked me up. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, certainly, but the question is at least worth asking: how fair of a shake can you give people when you believe their legislative opinion is based on an irrational fear of homosexuality? Of course, I was in college and living in Denver at the time of the vote and remember that things were weird. Our own governor -- himself part of an interesting polyamorous family situation -- marched in the streets condemning the people of his own state for how they voted.
Anyway, you would expect the irreverant Gawker site to poke fun at Stanton's statement. But I didn't think it would be hard to find more respected media analysts defending impartiality and balance. Instead, we have this comment from Steve Lovelady of the Columbia Journalism Review:
Let's imagine an Alabama editor in the 1950's writing, "Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give the Klu Klux Klan's side equal credence." Or how about "Repeatedly I demanded rewrites to give Hitler's side equal credence."
Where the hell has Billie Stanton been for the past 15 years, during which the most discredited journalism credo in the book has become the premise that "balance" equals truth ?
It is truth that journalism is supposed to be about, not "balance."
People got mad at her -- but not because she shouldn't have used the word homophobia to describe those with whom she disagreed about a political issue -- but because she thought those opponents deserved to have their say! As for Lovelady, I disagree that balance is not compatible with truth. But I'm glad he states his view unequivocally. Too bad he invoked Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies so early in the debate. Seriously, when everybody is Hitler, Hitler doesn't seem so bad. But Lovelady thinks journalism is not about balance and it shows. Stanton, whose work I'm unfamiliar with, thinks balance and a fair shake are important.
Polls of media professionals' opinions show that they are out of the mainstream when it comes to issues surrounding homosexuality. Many readers who oppose extending marital rights to homosexuals probably wish someone in the newsroom truly understood why they believed that way. The truth of the matter is that in many papers they'd be lucky to get someone as tolerant of their view as Stanton, who thinks they're sick in the head but reports on their views fairly anyway.
The thing is that it's not the reporter's vocation to slant the news in order to manipulate what the reader thinks. And we should always be on guard against the practice, particularly on the issues about which we have strong personal opinions. If one "side" is so obviously right, the reader will figure it out through simple reading. I mean, come on people. I'm Lutheran. Do you have any idea what I personally believe about James Dobson and his type, to name someone I wrote about recently? But my vocation here is not to tell you what to think of James Dobson's theology, but merely to look at whether he is portrayed fairly in local and national newspapers.
Oh wow. A further search of journalistic response to Stanton shows the situation is worse than I'd thought. Reporters think they should be the judge and jury. Here's Attytood's Will Bunch saying Stanton's drive for balance is "what's wrong with American journalism":
So, an American journalist of some reputation believes that news articles should accept homophobia as equally "true or valid" to those who do not hate gays -- all in the name of something called "balance."
It's getting easier for me to see why there's such a disconnect between Americans who oppose extending marriage to same-sex unions and the media. Views held by a large percentage of the readers are deemed pathological, invalid and unworthy of a fair shake. I wonder if reporters and editors realize that readers pick up on that dismissal of their views. Or if they care:
Objectivity -- never a great idea in journalism in the first place -- posits that we shouldn't make value judgments as to the people involved in the story or their views. But I think we can, and should. It may not be universally accepted, but homophobes' views are NOT equally as legitimate as the views of those who preach tolerance, just as segregationist views are not equally as legitimate as those who preach racial harmony.
I love the unironic use of the word "tolerance" in that comment. The thought police have set up shop at your newspapers! Don't think for yourself -- we'll tell you which view is acceptable. Obey and submit!