Bringing pressure to bear where it’s really needed

Posted: Mar 14, 2003 12:00 AM

African American journalists have one.  So do gay and lesbian journalists.  And Hispanic journalists.  And Asian American journalists.  Even female journalists.

They all have organizations to lobby on their behalf.  One might even call them pressure groups.

For example, according to its Web site, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) is committed to, “Providing balanced covereage (sic) of  the African American community and society at-large. Promoting diversity in newsrooms, and expanding job opportunities for African American journalists.”

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) vows, “To promote fair treatment of Hispanics by the news media. To foster greater understanding of the culture, interests and concerns of Hispanic journalists.”

And the website for the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association (NGLJA) says, “The issues of same-sex marriage, gay families, parenting and adoption, gays in the military, sex education in the schools, civil liberties, gay-related ballot initiatives, gay bashing and anti-gay violence are commanding media attention with regularity. NLGJA has had a positive effect on responsible gay coverage, but we still have work to do.”

Seems like the only group that isn’t lobbying inside the newsroom is arguably one of the largest groups -- Christian journalists.

According to a March Gallup poll, 79 percent of Americans identify in some way with Christianity.  A full 41 percent consider themselves evangelical. 

So, assuming that the population of journalists is similar to the population at large -- and we may be different, but we’re not that different -- it’s safe to assume that a majority of journalists is Christian. And a large number would also be evangelical.

Yet columnist Nicholas Kristof, a journalist for the New York Times since 1984 and a man who’s worked in bureaus around the world, wrote on March 4, “offhand, I can't think of a single evangelical working for a major news organization.”  It seems more likely he knows many, and simply doesn’t know they’re evangelical.

That’s a critical point, because as Kristof points out, “one of the deepest divides in America today is the gulf of mutual suspicion that separates evangelicals from secular society, and policy battles over abortion and judicial appointments will aggravate these tensions further in coming months.”

Thus evangelical journalists will be covering those stories -- but in a fair and balanced way.  As journalists, not as Christians.  They’ll do such a good job of maintaining their objectivity that other journalists, like Kristof, won’t even be aware of their Christianity.

Contrast that attitude with that of the groups cited above. The NLGJA proudly states it “has had a positive effect on responsible gay coverage.” Translated, that means they’ve managed to encourage only positive coverage of gay issues. 

As journalist William McGowan, author of the book Coloring the News [buy book], writes, “In the coverage of gay rights there is a decided partisan edge that filters out realities and facts that might undercut the gay rights cause.  Whether the issue is gays in the military, gay marriage or gay clergy, the press has been supportive of the gay rights cause.”

McGowan reached his conclusions after studying more than a decade of mainstream media coverage.  He adds that the quest for “diversity” -- something the NABJ calls for -- has politicized much of the coverage of racial, ethnic and cultural issues. 

The ideals of professional detachment and intellectual rigor have been challenged by political partisanship -- sometimes overt but most times unconscious -- with journalists becoming too concerned about presenting the world as it ought to be as opposed to the way it really is,” McGowan writes.

If a reporter set out to “foster greater understanding of the culture, interests and concerns of Hispanic journalists,” as the NAHJ encourages, it’s easy to see how that reporter would fall into the trap of covering the world as it ought to be, instead of how it really is.

If readers and viewers start to believe we’re reporting as Christian journalists, gay journalists, African American journalists, etc. they will start to tune us out. The only way for journalists to retain their credibility is to cover every story the same way: objectively, without a political, cultural or religious bias.

Total objectivity. Now, that’s an idea that’s worthy of a little pressure inside the newsroom.