Journalism 101: Reporters inform, columnists persuade

Feb 28th, 2013 | By | Category: anti-discrimination, Featured Articles, journalism, LGBT, Main Article

Twenty years ago when I was in journalism school – before smart phones and iPads and Twitter — I was taught that reporters report the news while columnists editorialize. In other words if you’re a reporter or a news anchor, your goal is to inform your audience, and you should never infuse your personal beliefs into the news you cover. This, I was told, would ruin your credibility.

These days, the line between reporter and commentator is murky, at best. The advent of cable news and social media has confused viewers (and apparently journalists) about these differing roles.

I’ve been criticized by readers of this blog for expressing my opinion or not giving enough attention to the other side of the story. Except, just like an editorial, the purpose of a blog is not to simply report the news but rather to influence opinion and persuade one’s audience.

The purpose of a newscast, however, is strictly about objectivity and giving coverage to both sides of an issue. That doesn’t or shouldn’t mean that reporters fail to call out their experts when they misquote a source or give inaccurate information. It doesn’t mean a reporter shouldn’t ask difficult questions or investigate government agencies. Indeed, I believe holding our elected officials accountable is one of the most important functions of the press.

But when a reporter or news anchor takes a controversial issue and seemingly takes a side on the controversy, all under the guise of starting a conversation, I find myself more than a little annoyed.

This week there was an incident on Facebook that demonstrated how easy it is for a reporter to cross the line from information to persuasion. On a public Facebook page, a Valley anchor posed a question to his audience about Phoenix’s proposal to expand its anti-discrimination protections to LGBT and disabled individuals. He referred to it as the “Bathroom Bill” (which was enough to inflame many readers), then stated, “If passed, transgendered men would be able to use the womens bathroom in public places like restaurants, churches and clubs.”

That statement wouldn’t be controversial if it was true, but it is woefully inaccurate. First off, the ordinance doesn’t even address bathroom use, which means an assumption was used to sound like a fact. Secondly, the ordinance contained a religious exemption, which was clearly stated and made public in the draft copy.

I’m not sure how this reporter could have misinterpreted the religious exemption had he read the proposed ordinance. I do know that there were several groups who were also using inaccuracies such as these to generate support against the ordinance.

What I find offensive, however, are some of the additional comments made by the anchor further down in the post, especially this one: “…the other side of the coin is how the bathroom part of this bill would make OTHERS feel. What seems to get lost in this debate is not only the rights of LGBT community, but also the rights of the straight community. I agree that Phoenix should move ahead in making our city a welcoming, accepting and tolerant community. However, the feelings of EVERYONE should be taken into account.”

Again, there is not and never was a “bathroom part” of the ordinance. And if this anchor is wishing to play devil’s advocate, then express the concerns of both sides of the issue. Or better yet, keep your personal opinion out of the debate, and let your readers hash it out.

Still, I’m curious to know what “rights” the straight community is giving up by outlawing the legal discrimination against LGBT and disabled individuals. Based on this post, it seems the reporter is suggesting that we have a right not to feel uncomfortable around people we don’t like.

Hmm. I seem to have heard this argument before. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe many Southerners were up in arms about similar protections offered to individuals on the basis of race. They even argued about the effect of allowing mixed races to use the same bathrooms. It made them uncomfortable to share a bathroom or drinking fountain with someone they deemed “unhygienic.” All kinds of bad things were sure to happen if the races mixed.

The LGBT and disabled communities are not asking us to embrace them or feel comfortable around them. Feeling comfortable isn’t a right. Having access to housing, however, should be a right. Being able to provide for your family, having a chance at gainful employment, a right.

Civil rights laws aren’t about soothing the majority’s feelings. They are intended to protect individuals who are routinely discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens.

The majority of Southerners didn’t like or feel comfortable around black people. But today, the majority of Americans would find discrimination based solely on race despicable. Times have changed, but discrimination against others deemed “abnormal” or “less-than” has not.

Opining on behalf of straight people would be a-ok (ethically) for a columnist or a reporter’s personal Facebook page but not on a public page associated with one’s professional job as a news anchor. And though this anchor qualifies his statements by saying the intent of his Facebook page is to “engage in a conversation with our viewers that I can’t have when I am reading the news,” this doesn’t negate the fact that a conversation with a journalist should still be anchored by accurate statements, not offensive opinions.

I get that it’s tough remaining objective in today’s media world, one where reporters are required to do much more than just put together a story for the evening newscast. Now they must tweet and blog and post status updates and be witty and personable all at the same time.

It’s a lot to ask. But it’s what the job demands. It’s what journalistic ethics demands.

I don’t wish to demonize this anchor because I don’t believe he was acting maliciously when he made his post, and he is certainly not alone among anchors in finding a controversial subject and putting a personal spin on it. Unfortunately for him, I just happened to see his post and take offense with the inaccuracies, the position and the ethics behind it.

I’m not a reporter, and I don’t mind if people disagree with my opinions. But as a blogger, I intend to call out journalists when I see them acting like editorialists. It’s a matter of professionalism, and it’s too important to simply sit back and say nothing.

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7 Comments to “Journalism 101: Reporters inform, columnists persuade”

  1. Donna Gratehouse says:

    If it’s the anchor I think it is, he routinely appears on the radio show of a very right wing host we expresses some definite opinions on various topics. Which he is allowed to do but it damages his credibility as a news anchor.

    • Julie Erfle says:

      Donna, I agree. It’s unprofessional, and I would think stations would be opposed to it. I was always told viewers/readers should never be able to guess a reporter’s political affiliation.

  2. Donna Gratehouse says:

    I meant “where he expresses” there. Something ate my letters!

  3. Mike Slater says:

    Julie, when is the last time you ever watched a “news” show were a reporter didn’t give their opinion?Any so-called news show such as ABC, CBS,NBC,CNN,MSNBC or even FOX news may give you the news but they also give their opinions on it.

    The only thing we have a right to is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You don’t have a “right” to housing or a job.

    • Julie Erfle says:

      That’s what I’m trying to say Mike. How can individuals have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if they cannot find work or housing or accommodations simply because of their sexual orientation or identity?

  4. Mike Slater says:

    Julie, housing and jobs are not a “right” regardless of sexual orientation or identity. Are you saying a person that can’t find housing or a job should be given those?

    • Julie Erfle says:

      Mike, I think you already know what I’m saying. Discrimination is wrong, and yes, I do believe it is okay and necessary for government to take steps to outlaw discrimination.

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