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Friday, March 11, 2011

More follow-up: the difference between neutrality and objectivity

Journalist Lauri Lebo wrote a book about Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the 2005 creationism case which occurred in her home state of Pennsylvania.  Prior to the actual court battle she had been covering the situation locally in newspapers, reporting on what transpired at school board meetings and such.  During and after the trial, however, she was accused by her newspaper editor of failing to be properly objective because she noted when creationist members of the school board perjured themselves on the stand and when their arguments were blasted out of the water by legal and scientific authorities.  Her editor, you see, actually wanted her to be neutral-- to present both sides as if they were equally legitimate.  But they weren't, and writing as if they were would constitute a failure to present the story factually.  Journalists are supposed to gather different perspectives on the stories they tell, but they should not be expected to be neutral.  Lebo expresses this concept beautifully in The Devil in Dover: objective reporting is not treating both sources as legitimate if one source has the truth on its side and the other is full of crap.  Objectivity is not making sure you include some nonsense to balance out your sense, or vice versa.  It's being as truthful as possible, no matter who that bothers.

That's the problem I have with this response from the New York Times to the "outrage" about the original McKinley story on the gang rape in Cleveland, Texas-- it acknowledges simply that the story "lacked a critical balancing element."  That it contained no quotes of someone sympathizing with the victim rather than the perpetrators.  That it wasn't neutral.  And yes, the story would have been better if it had included some of those quotes, rather than giving the impression that nobody in Cleveland cares about the girl who was raped, as I surely hope is not the case.  It would have come closer to representing the truth.  But the truth itself isn't neutral.  The truth is that it's called rape for a reason, and that is that the victim is never to blame, even slightly.  It seems extra abhorrent because the girl was only eleven years old, but this would be just as true if they had gang-raped a twenty-eight year old woman.  That's a fact that might have escaped a number of people in the Cleveland area, but it ought to be expressed overtly by someone reporting on the situation objectively: "Somebody in this story suggested something that isn't true.  Here are the actual facts."  And don't tell me that reporters have an obligation to keep their opinions out of their stories-- that might be true, but the law is not a matter of opinion, and the law says that it doesn't matter what the girl was wearing or how much makeup she had on, why she was in a dangerous part of town, or where her parents were.  If she was raped, she was raped, and that is entirely the fault of the men and boys who perpetrated it.  Period.

Should we, as a readership, have known this full well and not have needed to have it pointed out to us?  Yes, absolutely.  But clearly that's not the case-- not if anyone from Cleveland (for example) reads the New York Times.  I would say that they should, except that apparently they won't find any corrections on their misconceptions there.  At least, not today.

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