Pizza, Religious Freedom, Bigotry, and Yellow Journalism

I have not seen the pizzeria TV interview in question, I have not been following developments in the controversy, and I won’t link to any of the coverage.

Yellow journalism is bad when it supports an unjust status quo, or when it simply creates noise that distracts us from more important things. But it is also bad when it exposes bigotry. Of course, I don’t defend bigotry or claim the victims of bigotry should be silenced; in fact, a story on a couple whose catering request was denied because of their sexual orientation would be newsworthy. But if a reporter could not find any specific victims (in the assigned region, before the deadline assigned by the editor), then it is yellow journalism to sensationalizes a random citizen’s response to a hypothetical question, treating it with the same gravity as a corporation’s press release.

The angle of this story could, in a less-clickbaity world, have been “Dozens of owners we talked to (or hundreds? or just 3?) said they welcome all customers, though one woman who has never been hired to cater a same-sex marriage said she wouldn’t take such a job.”  But that version of the story would not generate the rage-sharing that causes links to go viral and makes big money for click-hungry media companies.

If you welcome ethical violations that strengthen the position you want to promote, on what moral ground can you question the very same tactics when deployed by your opponents?

Here’s a story I tell in my journalism class. When I was an undergrad, one day there were two competing demonstrations. On one side of the street, people carried signs with slogans like “Keep your laws off my body,” while on the other side of the street, about the same number of people carried signs with slogans like “It’s a child, not a choice.” One of the two competing student papers ran a story that featured four direct quotes from people on one side of the street, and quoted the slogans chanted by people on the other side of the street. Was that good reporting?

No, it was shallow, lazy, and quite literally one-sided. I tell my students that if they are waiting for me to tell them which side of the street got the favorable coverage, then they are missing the point I want to make about journalism.

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