This column first appeared in the AEJMC Media Ethics Division Winter 2021 Newsletter
I was in class when the text came: “Can we talk ASAP about an ethical issue”? It was one of our Lantern Student Media editors, but he was reaching out about a quandary he faced in his internship with an NPR affiliate.
He served as the student producer for a political podcast that wanted its next episode to address the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and planned follow-up protests at state capitols. The host gave my student a mandate: Find us one of the agitators—who had been in D.C. if possible—that we can put on the show and present both sides of this issue.
My student’s question for me: Should we have such a person as a guest?
The bedrock of journalism education has long teaching objectivity—we must provide both sides of an issue for that issue to be fairly and accurately covered. A community plans a new development, so interview those in favor or against it. Covering a rally for teachers seeking a new contract requires getting comments from the administrators who may oppose it.
But covering an attack on democracy by those calling for the overthrow of a free and fair election? Giving a platform to those who believe and advance an alternative and fake reality? That puts us in all-new territory.
It is true that the First Amendment provides protection for speech. It states, in actuality, that “Congress shall make no law,” preventing the free exercises of speech and the press, among a trio of additional rights to religion, assembly and petitioning the government.
Congress shall make no law.
A free press and the right to free speech does not mean media shall equally cover that which puts democracy in danger or provide an equal voice to those who lie to subvert the truth.
Our job is to inform the public with the facts it needs to know.
By doing so, we also amplify the voice to which we provide coverage. We give validity to those seeking coverage, and the inclusion of comments in the work we produce gives consumers the illusion that they are consuming fact-based information that has made it through the gatekeeper, fact-checking function media has long provided.
We live in an age of rampant and malicious disinformation that has created a separate and equal reality in which a good number of citizens live, allowing them to believe elections were stolen, COVID-19 is a fiction and all Democrats are running child molestation rings.
These are beliefs we cannot perpetuate, and we cannot provide a platform for them to gain any level of legitimacy.
It is possible to cover insurrection without giving voice to the insurrectionists. Bring on academic experts, researchers, national security veterans, even journalists. Look for people who provide an understanding of why and how actions are taking place with a 360-degree view, not one clouded by ideology and personal prejudice.
That is how we help the public be informed, how we advance dialogue and generate debate.
My answer to him was, “No. You should not invite such a person.”
It is not our job to provide the other side if that side perpetuates lies for salacious appeal. We can be fair. We can be accurate. But when it comes to matters to which our survival as democracy exists, there is no other side.