Editor's Letter: Objectivity, Sensitivity and Reporting the Truth

September 8, 2012

This week, the editor-in-chief of the Northwestern Chronicle published a column doubting the objectivity of the Medill Equal Media Project. We expect our readers to hold us accountable for our words, and we're happy to discuss those ethical principles and reporting practices that form the foundation of our craft.

MEMP staffers are encouraged to blog about their reporting experiences throughout the project, and Chronicle editor Charles Rollet used quotations from one such blog post to accuse the Project of being "one-sided" and "far from objective." In case that we've phrased something imperfectly, we'd like to clarify our mission.

Mr. Rollet takes issue especially with the following phrase written in a blog post by MEMP staffer Julia Haskins about her decision not to interview anti-gay figures: "The 'both sides' argument is an old journalistic trope that needs to be crushed." Mr. Rollet wrote that Ms. Haskins had denounced "balanced" journalism, when in fact this is not the case. We're all about balanced journalism. But, as I'll explain, balanced and "two-sided" are not the same thing.

Mr. Rollet also accuses Ms. Haskins of unethically showing support for marriage equality when she states, "Although presidential support for marriage equality is a big step forward, states across the country have, like North Carolina, taken several steps back." He speculates that the goal of the Project appears to be "to castigate all people opposed to gay marriage as hateful bigots and extremists."

Our project centers on the premise that LGBT people have a lot at stake this election season. To say that LGBT people will be affected by elections nationwide—by the fate of policies addressing health care, anti-discrimination measures, and, yes, marriage equality—is not a judgment, but a fact. And to the LGBT people whose voices we seek to amplify, presidential support for marriage equality is undoubtedly a big step forward.

The truth of the matter is that reporters are people, and no person is completely apolitical, therefore no publication is truly free of all bias. Contrary to Mr. Rollet's belief, this is something many of us have learned from our Medill journalism coursework as well as through our experiences working on other publications. If journalists could only cover those stories about which they held no personal opinion, no stories could ever be covered.

Likewise, we openly admit that we each hold our own political viewpoints, and that includes stances on marriage equality and other issues of significance to LGBT communities. Acknowledging our biases is part of our commitment to transparency. We're upfront about who we are as individuals, and we vow not to let it interfere with the work we do as a project. If Medill has taught us one thing, it's that our views are valid, but they have no place in our work. We respect that.

Furthermore, we'd like to remind our readers that objectivity and sensitivity are not mutually exclusive. To us, objectivity means refusing to let our personal views interfere with how we report and what topics we cover. The stories we're writing are newsworthy and relevant, not mere matters of personal interest. Our final pieces will undergo scrupulous fact-checking, and we'll read over every story carefully for hints of unintended message or bias.

But sensitivity means respecting the true stories of our sources. If we encounter LGBT people who believe they are treated unfairly under a particular law, we feel it's our right and responsibility to publish that truth. If real people consider real politicians to play a role in their mistreatment, we're going to publish that, too. We don't intend to provide a platform for those parties accused of discriminatory practices—we're here to report on the people they've affected.

To clarify a point Mr. Rollet felt compelled to address in quotation marks, as if the problem weren't real: By way of laws, ordinances and informal rules enforced nationwide, transgender people are routinely denied an array of rights given to cisgender people, or people who are not transgender. We are not in the position to ignore this truth, or to deny their right to share it.

Most importantly, sensitivity means refusing to portray antagonistic bullies as legitimate players in a discussion on civil rights. In our reporting, we've met plenty of individuals who object to marriage equality for any number of reasons: faith, upbringing or political persuasion, for instance. We don't plan to label these people "hateful bigots and extremists," as Mr. Rollet anticipates.

However, some of these voices are themselves less fair than others. For example, some opponents of marriage equality also advocate the widely disproven notion that LGBT people are mentally ill—and some media may publish their voices as credible viewpoints in the debate over LGBT equality. We find it irresponsible to present unabashed prejudice as rational discourse, and we won't do it.

In February, the Pew Research Center released statistics about increasing national support for interracial marriage. According to Pew, 63 percent of Americans said it "would be fine" if a member of their family married outside their race. The New York Times and CNN both covered the story, and neither cited any activists, organizations or other individuals who adamantly oppose interracial marriage.

The story's central statistic denotes that fully a third of Americans are wary of family marrying outside their race, and the absence of an example does not make either story less balanced. Both media outlets acknowledged that some people do not support interracial marriage. Neither quoted a white supremacist group in an attempt to represent "the other side."

(Note: This is not to compare the civil rights struggles of LGBT people with those of African-Americans on any level, including marriage; the two are very different movements with very different histories, and we don't intend to draw unjustified comparisons. Nonetheless, a person who proudly opposes interracial marriage today would probably not be taken seriously in the public sphere, and as the polls show, those who brazenly denounce equal rights for LGBT people are rapidly losing relevance.)

We have not reached a point in society where voices opposing LGBT equality are so few to be deliberately muted. Further, we realize that not all those opposed to marriage equality are opposed to LGBT people. Some communities of faith in particular find their opposition to same-sex marriage rooted in the principles of their belief systems, and we respect and acknowledge that. Come October, our stories will show it.

But those voices loudly decrying marriage equality and bludgeoning other pushes for LGBT equality are not only a minorityin the United States, but an unjust depiction of the lives of LGBT people themselves. As such, we refuse to define LGBT people's experiences through the perspectives of those who vehemently degrade them. In a project meant to tell truthful stories of LGBT lives, we ask that you trust our editorial judgment in determining whose viewpoints are balanced and whose are malicious. There is a crucial difference between disagreement and bigotry, and we're fully capable of making the distinction.

We thank Mr. Rollet for understanding that a few personal blog posts do not represent the scope of reporting we'll present in a few weeks. Until then, we'd like to reassure him and our greater readership that our intent is to report the truth, and nothing more.

Camille Beredjick is the editor-in-chief of the Medill Equal Media Project.