Personal biases should never silence citizens’ voices

The role of the journalist today is changing and often up for debate. Some traditional scholars insist that we should publish the facts objectively and fairly without taking sides, while others believe we have the responsibility to interpret information and decide which voices are most valid.

In the Information Age, more and more information is being made available online, seemingly lessening the need for trained journalists. As a result, the responsibility of the reporter is shifting to include the role of “sense-maker” – someone who analyzes and contextualizes information – in order to keep journalism relevant.

Journalism is becoming less about neutrality and more about determining meaning.

 Author and journalist Tom Rosenstiel acknowledges in a Poynter article that there is a rapid progression of the idea that “journalism should now largely move beyond fact gathering and toward synthesis and interpretation.”

Jonathan Stray, a freelance journalist and professor who also works at the Associated Press, writes about this shift in journalism in a Nieman Lab article: “Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.”

While I agree there is a place for journalists’ interpretation of events and a need for contextualization, there are also lines that should not be crossed. One of those lines is when journalists facilitate the censorship of reasonable voices due to personal disagreement, rather than just interpreting the full information or presenting opposing arguments.

This discussion is especially relevant when editors and journalists are faced with decisions regarding the publication of letters to the editor or online comments.

In a J-Source article, journalist Belinda Alzner identifies an example where the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix published a letter from a citizen who wrote, “Children who are sexually assaulted could have stopped the abuse, could have walked away.” After public outcry over the letter, it was removed and an apology was issued from the paper.

In cases like this where the letter to the editor is lacking reason and factual basis, the public good may be better served by not publishing the letter.Photo courtesy of Lisa Padilla, Flickr

However, some journalists are taking this further and crossing the line between sense-making and the gatekeeping of ideas.

For instance, in a recent opinion column published in the Prince George Citizen, managing editor Neil Godbout argues that the old phrase about “two sides to every story” should be invalidated, and he even goes so far as to assert that many popular yet controversial issues only have one valid side to the story.

Godbout makes the contention that letters to the editor are not worth publishing if they argue that vaccines are harmful, that climate change isn’t happening, or that the theory of evolution is debatable.

“Period. There’s only one side to that story,” claims Godbout.

In this case, Godbout maintains that evolution is “as reliable a theory as the theory that the sun will rise in the east in the morning and set in the west in the evening,” and that any letters contradicting this theory, even if scientifically based, should not be published.

When dealing with contestable topics such as assisted suicide or abortion, this practice would mean that journalists could ignore voices that are the minority or that the editors don’t agree with.

However, when journalists adopt this line of thinking, they are making conclusions on controversial issues that the citizens they are working to serve haven’t even decided on, and silencing entire citizen groups.

In the case of the evolution debate, there is not only one side to the story.

A 2012 Angus Reid survey found that 61 per cent of Canadians surveyed “believe that human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years.” But this leaves 39 per cent of respondents with varying perspectives who also deserve to have their voices heard, including the 22 per cent who said they believe in creationism. And in the United States, 51 per cent of Americans surveyed said they believe in creationism.

As a human race, we may never reach a conclusion to the debate on evolution, creationism and all of the theories in between, but it is pure ignorance to summarily discount the research and evidence compiled by experts such as Dr. John Lennox, who has a triple doctorate in philosophy and science from Cambridge; Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize-winner who earned a doctorate in physics from Columbia University; and Alister McGrath, who holds both a doctorate of philosophy and molecular biophysics, and a doctorate of divinity and theology from the University of Oxford.

Last time I checked, few journalists or small-town newspaper editors could boast those same credentials.

B. Pless, editor of the Injury Prevention journal, highlighted the importance of this principle in an article titled Are Editors free from bias? The special case of Letters to the Editor. Pless writes that he has a strong opinion on bicycle helmet legislation, but he publishes letters that oppose his opinions even though he disagrees with them.

Photo courtesy of Richard Masoner, www.cyclelicio.us“If I were to permit my biases to guide my actions, most of this critical material would not have seen the light of day. But, editors have a responsibility to their readers and must not censor material with which they disagree, however tempting it might be to do so,” Pless writes.

The integrity of journalism as a profession relies strongly on our ability to respect opposing opinions and acknowledge alternative ideologies, while providing relevant context and information to the public.

If journalists are not listening to all of the voices present in a conversation, the pursuit of truth will inevitably fail.

eholloway@cjournal.ca


To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ato Baako at abaako@cjournal.ca

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Richard Masoner, www.cyclelicio.us