Mormon Media Observer: BBC story shows the limits of 'getting both sides.'

Published: Tuesday, April 24 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

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.

But when I made the connection, I understood better why it is that people sometimes get so frustrated with journalists.

My insight came from the tone of the letter. It seemed as though the BBC said they were just doing what journalism does. They seemed to assert their approach was consistent with standard journalism ethics.

Here is what BBC wrote in part: The documentary, BBC said, “heard from former members of the Mormon community who claim the faith is cult-like. These claims were put to representatives of the Church who had the opportunity to respond. We believe the programme approached the subject at hand in a fair and impartial manner, hearing from a wide range of contrasting views, allowing viewers to make up their own minds.”

In short, the BBC said they were being objective and fair — two primary components of being ethical as a journalist. And the BBC accurately reported what was said.

Yet in following these ethical guidelines, the BBC enhanced controversy and took readers away from the central truths embedded in the lives of Latter-day Saints. That is what frustrated me and frustrates consumers of other stories.

Please don’t misunderstand my point. In using the analogy of Flat-Earthers to explain the limits of “getting both sides,” I don’t for a second claim that those opposed to my faith are like those who believe the world is flat. Religion is too much about faith for that kind of assertion.

Now, I do believe I have a serious faith that deserves serious consideration, and I do believe that reporters must be cautious in how they quote ex-Mormons when the agenda of those disaffected is to mock or even distort my faith.

And I would not exempt the church or its members from fair scrutiny.

But these aren't my point. The point is the thing about which BBC was “getting both sides” — whether Mormonism is a cult.

Exactly how can there be an answer to that question? It is a semantic and definitional question, one filled with perceptions, not one really subject to external facts.

Getting both sides of this question gets us no closer to some fundamental truth about Mormonism, does it?

In glibly bringing up the question of Mormonism as cult and “getting both sides of that question” is to enhance controversy and pain. And that controversy moves viewers away from the more important questions of how Latter-day Saints live their lives, of how this faith shapes them, and of what Latter-day Saints actually believe.

So, my issue with the BBC documentary in the end is that journalism must guide us to a deeper truth.

In short, fair-minded journalism needs to again — as it is doing in important quarters — rethink the limits of “getting both sides” as a description for ethical journalism.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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