Specious arguments of journalistic integrity

Published on August 18, 2014

It disturbs me to see publications hide behind misplaced notions of journalistic integrity, as the Newfoundland Herald did last week.

As has been widely circulated, in its Aug. 3-9 edition, the Herald published “The Coming Christian Revolt” by American blogger Matt Barber, an extreme ring-wing letter to the editor that put gay marriage and abortion rights in its crosshairs.

Last week, following mounting criticism and a pending (but since dropped) human rights complaint by Western Pride NL, the magazine published an apology to its readers.

“Many beautiful, wise, wonderful and caring people were hurt and angered by Barber’s letter, and the fact that it was published in the Herald. And for that, I’m truly sorry,” Herald managing editor Pam Pardy-Ghent said in the letter.

But while Pardy-Ghent apologized to those who were hurt by the letter, she expressed no regret. There was no remorse — all was in the name of good journalism.

“If we refuse to publish letters that may be controversial, or letters that do not line up with our own beliefs, then I believe there’s a problem,” Pardy-Ghent said.

“Opinions, no matter how unpopular or controversial, can be freely expressed in this country whether they are from a minority, or a majority.”

True. But that needn’t make media outlets like the Herald into channels for any fanatic’s views.

Avoiding censorship doesn’t mean publishing whatever letter winds up in the inbox at the end of the week.

 Nor does it provide newspapers and magazines with a blank cheque for broadcasting views that denigrate their readership.

There is never, as the Herald implies, a duty to publish letters that disparage people because of their sexual orientation or that promote antiquated views about certain parts of society.

Publishing an opinion piece that describes gay marriage as “evil” is not a reminder of the journalistic integrity publications strive to achieve.

Rather, it’s a tiresome reminder of the specious arguments magazines and newspapers use to shield themselves when they publish content they know to be incendiary.

Good journalism should deal in facts. And the fact is, gay marriage isn’t evil.

People may not agree with it, it may make some people angry, but that doesn’t make it evil. Evil is for cartoon villains, not entire cross- sections of the law-abiding public.

And, in keeping with the accuracy theme, wouldn’t not publishing a piece that says gay marriage is evil seem more in line with good, fact-based journalism, than publishing it in the first place?

The Herald’s approach puts freedom of speech first and facts second. It’s a backwards mentality which will forever stir up the same sort of controversy created by the past two weeks’ unfortunate events.

Do I believe in a press that censors free speech? Of course not.

But I do believe in a responsible media that recognizes unfit content for what it is. I do believe in media organizations that realize the power they have and the value of their voice — and that don’t tarnish it with letters they know will alienate their readers.

Publications indirectly censor news every day by deciding what they want to cover. By choosing to publish “The Coming Christian Revolt” over another letter to the editor (I assume there was another), the Herald effectively silenced someone else.

I see no difference between that everyday editorial decision and the journalistic dilemma purportedly faced by the Herald.

And I have a hard time seeing the harm in letting the rant it published settle at the bottom of a dustbin.

“Publish or perish,” my arse.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.