Transmitting Values: A Guide to Fairer Journalism
By Keith Woods, The Poynter Institute
Most journalists willingly concede that objectivity is an
honorable myth, achievable only in an ideal world. If that is so, then our
success at moving along the continuum from subjective reporting toward that
objective ideal hinges on our ability to recognize and correct for the human
biases that pull us in the wrong direction. Here are places to look for those
The stories we choose can tell our public something about
what we value. Where we go, whom we interview, what perspectives we represent,
all convey a message to the public.
When it works: When the scope of coverage shows communities
in their fullest complexity–all classes, religions, races/ethnicities, men and
women, gay and straight, all political persuasions–then there is greater
chance that all groups will feel valued and will respect your organization.
When it doesn’t work: It produces reporting that largely
ignores groups or disproportionately shows them in a negative or stereotypical
way. Religious fundamentalists as
extremists; gay men as AIDS victims; Hispanics and black people as criminals.
How we refer to people or
incidents, from the opening of a story to its kicker, can
speak volumes to the public. Each adjective, phrase, or inflection,
either verbal or written, has the power
to signal to a viewer, reader, or listener that the reporter has a particular
point of view.
When it works: Language is precise, direct, strong. It is
not overly dependent upon sources and subjects. It is wary of single-word
descriptors–radical, hysterical, separatist–that are used as labels by one
person or group against another. It avoids hyperbole and euphemisms.
When it doesn’t work: Inference substitutes for fact.
Language is loaded.
Studies show that images can easily overpower words in
broadcast and in print, and they can deliver a message that may or may not be
what the journalist intends. Images shape impressions, and their effects,
positive and negative, are long-lasting.
When they work: They portray a diversity of people and offer
a range of perspectives.
When they don’t work: They help form or reinforce
stereotypes by portraying people
The most abiding and most immediate values transmitted from
journalists to their public arrive via the "play" a story gets. Top of
the A-block. Banner headline. Large letters. Urgent pitch. Journalists tell
people who and what is most important. Which stories must be told now. Which can
be relegated to the news briefs and the back pages.
When it works: All people are valued equally. Breast cancer
stories get the same play as prostate cancer stories. Success and tragedy
stories about people of color receive the
When it doesn’t work: Journalists perpetuate a false
hierarchy where men’s issues