Favoritism vs news judgment
When assessing content, if you must think too long about whether something is fair, then it probably is not, and you should redirect your energy into making it fair. Fairness has to do with being aware of and attentive to nuances, treating people with respect, and anticipating perceptions that readers will take away with them. Fairness has to do with being consistent, yet flexible when circumstances require. A role of an editor is to consider context in making decisions case by case — and to do so with care and a conscience. All journalists, not just editors, should approach content this way.
Questions you can ask about story treatment
Does a story make light of people at their expense? News can be fun, and news organizations can have fun with obvious, lighthearted news. But they should not do it at anyone else’s expense. It would not be fair. Police reports and court proceedings, for example, are full of humorous situations and predicaments, but the humor factor is relative — it might not be funny to the person in the news. Editors can take their lead from how people react to their own situations. If people in the news think what happened is funny, then editors can feel comfortable that a light approach to the story would be appropriate and fair. If in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Are people and issues treated differently in similar situations? Editors should ask this question to ensure that readers do not perceive favoritism. If a news organization routinely publishes driving while intoxicated arrests, for example, then it should not withhold publication of some arrests just to protect certain people. The same is true for any news of record that is regularly published. A news organization should not decide to leave someone out because publication would be an embarrassment or because of the person’s place in the community and connections to high-profile people. Readers have a sense of how news is treated. They will notice exceptions.
News judgment is a different thing
These distinctions regarding fairness should not be confused with news judgment, however. There are times when editors make exceptions because the news warrants more extensive coverage — or less extensive coverage. When a prominent person in a community dies, a news feature about that person usually is published, even though only short obituaries announce the deaths of most people in the community. This practice is not favoritism; it is sound news judgment that readers expect. News judgment is the reason prominent people might be singled out in unfavorable coverage, too. A DWI or drug arrest of a prominent person might be published as a full story, even if other people arrested appear only in a list. This is not unfair treatment of the prominent person; it is a response to the news value of that person’s arrest.
How you can decide
Use the “me” test. If this were about me, what would be my reaction?
- What if I don’t want to be interviewed?
- What if I don’t think this is funny?
- What if I don’t want my arrest to be published?
This is a good approach to start. But, then, step back and use the “editor” test. Review everything once more. Consider news values, consistent practices and whether any exceptions are valid. Ask other editors what they think. In the quest to be fair, consider the consequences of publishing — and of not publishing. You want readers to always trust your news organization to deliver news and information. You don’t want them to think you are withholding news or shirking your responsibility to disseminate it. Make your decisions with care and with a conscience.