Some people believe the Earth is flat — or so I’ve heard.
If Wikipedia is to be believed, they’ve formed a society — the International Flat Earth Research Society. Their work is called a theory. Their history includes antecedents with high-sounding names like Zetitism and practical cosmography.
Flat-earthing, therefore, seems to appropriate the sheen of traditional science, even though it isn’t.
Now, I’d like you to run a thought experiment about journalism and the idea that the earth is flat.
Under the traditional ethics of journalism, a journalist tries to take no position on any controversy. They are neutral observers. They get "both sides."
This ethical view leads journalists to try to accurately report the defense of a defendant. When someone is accused of wrongdoing, a journalist asks for their response and reports that response prominently in a story.
Most of the time, this ethic works well. It’s an ethical constraint for which citizens should generally be grateful.
But, the Flat Earth Society shows the limits of such reasoning. In the minds of some few, the idea that the earth is round remains a controversy.
Now, no responsible journalist gives any credence to the Flat Earth Society nor should they.
But imagine if every time there was some story about the shape of the earth or about space trips around the earth, journalists included “both sides” of this “controversy.” Articles might read something like this:
“Many scientists say the Earth is round, as shown by space missions, but Zetitists and members of the Flat Earth Research Society say evidence shows the Earth is not, but is flat and that all space missions have been staged for a government agenda.”
Such a construction looks like ethical journalism. The reporter takes no sides, remains neutral and gives people clear and respectful presentation of their varying views. And it would be accurate in some basic sense.
But such writing also creates controversy where their isn’t, enhances disagreements that do exist, creates an equality of ideas that really don’t deserve equal treatment and, worst of all, moves readers away from the truth.
As a consumer looking to journalists to help me understand this world, such a construction is totally unsatisfactory.
It’s a real problem for reporters generally.
What does it mean to get “both sides” amid controversy? When is it fair to treat a story as a controversy in the first place?
I thought of this issue because of a letter I wrote to the BBC recently.
A few weeks ago, the British Broadcasting Company produced a provocative documentary about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As I said to the BBC in my complaint to them, my analysis was limited because only snippets are available in the United States, even online, so I was judging from an incomplete picture.
But what I saw deeply troubled me. It suggested gotcha-style reporting and included detailed interviews with disaffected Latter-day Saints who seemed willing to mock things I hold sacred.
I understand that representatives of the Church complained formally to the BBC about the content of the piece.
The BBC, to its credit, wrote a serious response to my inquiry, though it was a form letter. Evidently, other Latter-day Saints complained too.
Their response frustrated me, and it took me awhile to understand why.
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