Telling the ‘sides’ of civil rights

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 5.18.11 PMOne of the first things they teach you in journalism class is “tell both sides of the story.”

I think that phrasing needs a little updating.

The philosophy behind it is important – whenever you are telling a story, you want to be fair. Covering a presidential election? Talk to both candidates. City council votes to build a new housing complex? Talk to the people who sponsored the idea and the people living in the affected area.

But stories aren’t just two-sided. Sometimes it can be like a 20-sided die. There’s rarely a story that has people simply “for” or “against.” People have complex connections to subjects – maybe they support part of something, but not another part. Rather than trying to shoehorn an interview with someone “for” and someone “against,”, you need to seek the people affected by the story.

The key point to remember is that stories are never black and white. They are gray. And it gets even grayer on the subject of same-sex marriage.

In the past week, several states have struck down bans on same-sex marriage, prompting gay and lesbian couples to rush to courthouses to sign their marriage licenses. You’ve probably seen the stories of couples signing on the bottom line, as cameras click away and people applaud. I covered the story when it happened in Oregon, as couples shared their story of how long they waited, and how much the moment meant to them. These stories are a news department’s dream: they’re emotional, they’re visually impactful, and they’re going to generate discussion. All of these things are important. But then a news director says, “we need both sides of this story.”

That’s when things get tricky.

What voices are being heard? Who decides whose opinions are more valid? Who is chosen to represent the “other side,” and is there even a defined “side” to this particular story?

And most importantly, is this “other side” a natural part of the story, or is it being sought out, and forced in, for the purpose of telling both sides.

Remember stories are gray, and the subject of same-sex marriage is something that affects complex people with complex emotions.

When I was reporting on same-sex marriage in Oregon, my news director told me to “get someone opposed to it,” in the interest of fairness. But I had to ask myself, who would I try to talk to? No one was at the courthouse protesting. No one was organizing an effort to launch an appeal. There wasn’t an apparent public push “against” the subject. Do I reach out to people on the street, until I found enough people who don’t support same-sex marriage? And why were those people chosen, just because they happened to be there?

For my story, I ended up calling several churches in the area, and I felt like a scumbag doing it. These people were not directly involved in the issue, hadn’t spoken out against it, but I knew same-sex mariage was likely against their church teachings, which would satisfy the need to “get the other side.” I was then asserting myself into the story, because these churches would never have been involved had I not called them in the first place.

Recently, I got into a discussion on Twitter with a colleague who works in a state that had begun to allow same-sex marriage. She had been covering stories about  several couples that had finally been able to marry. This week, her news director prompted her to find the other side of the issue. The latest story said a local couple “reached out” to the news department. In the story, the couple claimed homosexuality “spreads like cancer,” and repeatedly stated their negative opinions about gay and lesbian people.

My question was, who decides whether this couple speaks for the entire “other side?” What qualifications did they have, other than disapproving of same-sex marriage? Why was their opinion chosen instead of any other couple? Those are questions that always need to be answered before any interview for any subject.

In this case, the couple had painted anti-gay slogans on their car, and viewers had called the station to complain. That starts a discussion about whether they are in the public eye – another factor to consider when deciding who to interview!

When it comes to random, man-on-the street interviews (MOS), try to reverse the situation – would you seeking out random couples who support same-sex marriage? Probably not, because a random person’s opinion is not relevant to the story. So then, would a random person’s dissenting opinion be deemed newsworthy?

In the end, it came down to a news director’s call about wanting “both sides.” It’s not right or wrong, it’s just another way of looking at coverage.

In any situation, you need to interview the stakeholders – the people directly affected by a story. If a Burger King gets robbed, you wouldn’t interview someone across town about their thoughts on burglary. You would interview workers at the restaurant, the police, the neighbors who have seen an increase in crime.

In the subject of civil rights, the same rules apply – interview the stakeholders. Talk to people now being allowed to get married, the politicians and activists groups fighting against the ruling, the people holding demonstrations. In the colleague’s story I cited above, the couple did not seem to me like they were in the public eye. Maybe there were better choices, people actively involved in the debate, who would have been better interview choices. You may disagree with me, and that’s OK! That’s why journalists do what they do. There’s a reason reporters use their discretion in choosing who to interview.

Personally, I feel if the average person wants to share their opinion, they can do it on Facebook.

Civil rights issues are not going to be easy stories, but you still need to follow where the story takes you, just like anything else. When you leave that newsroom in the morning, you have an idea of what the story might be, but it almost always changes. Stories have layers, and the challenge is to use all of them in a report.

Tell the story fully, but don’t force a perspective if it’s not there.

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