Journalists who are doing their job by reporting fairly on a controversial topic often get attacked from both sides.

Jerz > Writing > Journalism >

Journalists who are doing their job by reporting fairly on a controversial topic often get attacked from multiple sides.

The really biased journalists will get criticism from just one side. (But the “both sides” fallacy is tricky.)

A professor of nuclear physics once objected to my headline that went something like “School closes training reactor for cleanup.” To him, the word “cleanup” irresponsibly fanned public fears that nuclear reactors are dirty and dangerous. Because I resisted the wordy phrasing he suggested (“return the site to unrestricted use”), he saw me as biased against nuclear energy.

I can envision the earnest and committed environmentalist dismayed that my story included several direct quotes from a nuclear energy advocate (including one quote where he used the phrasing “return the site to unrestricted use”), instead of listing all the problems with nuclear energy and promoting safer and more sustainable alternatives. And who would ever write a story like that, unless they were biased against the environment?

It’s naive to approach every news story as a balanced disagreement between two equally valid sides (“Coming up next, our exclusive interview with a COVID-19 virus particle!“), but the truth is, no human being can be completely objective.

Some reporters do let their biases distort their reporting.  Some news companies over-react to reader complaints about perceived biases and some readers who confuse news stories (which are supposed to be neutral) with editorials (which are supposed to have a point a view) are shocked when they encounter any journalistic content that challenges their own preferred slant.

Americans can fairly and legitimately differ on important values. Freedom or security? Peace or justice? Which short-term sacrifices are worth making, for which long-term benefits?

Most readers will nod along with whatever parts of a story affirm their values. A significant number will reject any story — even one that’s carefully sourced and fact-checked — if it challenges their world view. (“So biased!” “Fake news!”)

Whenever even the fairest-minded journalists tackle a high-stakes story involving groups with different levels of access to wealth, education, healthcare and personal security, any honest story they publish is going to make someone upset.

During the summer 2020 demonstrations that erupted in reaction to Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of the handcuffed and non-resisting George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports (as of July 1) 484 incidents of aggression against journalists.

These incidents include arrests, tear gassings, pepper spraying, assaults by rubber bullets, unspecified other physical attacks, and damage to equipment and facilities.

If you feel the biased lying America-hating fake news reporters deserved it, then you’re missing an important part of the First Amendment — which explicitly prohibits laws that infringe upon the rights of the people to speak and publish freely.

Let’s presume, for the sake of the argument, that every one of the journalists that we see being targeted by police in these clips was in the process of producing a biased news report.

That’s just a fraction of the reported incidents. Even if these police actions successfully prevented the press from publishing biased news reports, the simple truth is that publishing a biased news story is not a crime.

Further, it’s simply not part of a police officer’s job description to arrest, shoot or intimidate people because of what they say, write or think.

Of course people can be sued for defamation and libel, and of course editors don’t want the lawsuits or bad publicity that comes when they have to retract, but in the U.S. legal system, even if a suspect is drugged out of their minds, resisting arrest, holding a smoking gun, waving a “Black Lives Matter” sign, carrying a TV through the smashed window of a burning department store, or delivering a live report for CNN, that person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

If you care about the U.S. Constitution, you should be alarmed by the demonization of peaceful protestors and upswing in police attacks on journalists — and equally alarmed by the number of Americans who are willing to argue that they had it coming.

In some cases, reporters have been confronted not by police, but by demonstrators. A common objection is that news coverage publicizes the faces of protesters, and that a reporter has no right to endanger a citizen who might reasonably fear reprisal from an employer or landlord.

But courts have long established anyone can take pictures of anything they can see from any public place where they have a right to be (such as a sidewalk or park).

This doesn’t mean a reporter should publish the names and addresses and criminal records of every person holding a sign at a rally. Nor should journalists use a drone to spy on people sunbathing in suburban backyards or on urban balconies, or set up a tripod and lights in a subway stairwell.

But journalists aren’t required to get any form of consent before photographing law enforcement officers, protesters, or anyone else in any public location — including minors.

KSTP-TV Minneapolis/St. Paul reporter Richard Reeve was well within his rights when he recorded a civilian firing a handgun in the air during a Black Lives Matter rally.

I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw commentary from Twitter users accusing KSTP of adding fake gunshot sound effects to their news coverage, as part of a deliberate effort to misrepresent a peaceful rally.

A Reddit thread said, “News reporter played Gunshot sounds on his phone during the peaceful protest.

News reporter played Gunshot sounds on his phone during the peaceful protest. from minnesota

Angry protestors accuse him of playing fake gunshots in order to incite violence. Sounds pretty bad, right?

In fact, he was simply reviewing video he had recorded moments earlier. It’s not fake — someone in the crowd really pulled out a handgun and fired several rounds in the air. (Here’s the clip.)

In a statement, KTSP addressed the accusations, defending Reeve.

“There have been false accusations that our reporter was playing the sound of the gunshots to upset the crowd, and that is simply not true.  Also not true is that the sound of gunshots was falsely used in our reporting.  We chose not to broadcast his video because we felt it ultimately did not contribute to our efforts to impartially portray the events that were happening in a rapidly developing situation.”

I’ll soon follow up with “Copspeak, passive voice, and ethical headlines in journalism.”