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 biases.  

Selection

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.

Language

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. Euphemisms reign. A man "admits" that he is gay. A pregnant woman "peddles" her story to the press. Richard Jewell "bounces" from job to job. "Inner city" replaces black or Hispanic. "Conservative," "suburban," or "blue collar" replace white.

Images

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. They take the public where they might not ordinarily go. They’re the work of informed photojournalists whose continuing education provides both sensitivity and confidence. They produce a body of work that is balanced and fair.

When they don’t work: They help form or reinforce stereotypes by portraying people disproportionately in a negative or stereotypical light. They hurt people unnecessarily. They provide the public with a false sense of the world in which they live. 

Play

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 same prominent play as those about white people.

When it doesn’t work: Journalists perpetuate a false hierarchy where men’s issues are more important than those of women. Where white lives are worth more than others. Where the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians is considered more newsworthy than that of heterosexuals.