The current focus on change and accountability isn’t limited to the criminal justice system. It has boiled over to corporate America, and the media won’t be spared.
On June 4, reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer organized a sickout because they are sick and tired of how the paper covers race.
“We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of,” they wrote in a letter signed Journalists of Color of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I’ve been tired of editors twisting stories to fit a narrative or agenda that isn’t the writers’. And I’ve been over it with editors calling on writers to balance out their stories.
Both of those are editorial decisions that distort, mislead, and minimize.
A lot of times those editorial twists result in writing that’s outright foolish. And furthermore, it can be damaging and even dangerous for us as writers.
What’s the Harm?
Take the Philadelphia Inquirer, its journalists of color walked out a couple days after the paper ran a story under the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.
In its apology, the paper admitted that the “deeply offensive” headline was developed and approved by editors, not the writer.
“The headline offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement, and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans, the Inquirer’s statement said.
“We should not have printed it. We’re sorry, and regret that we did,” the paper’s top editors wrote.
Mind you, this came in the midst of protests, some destructive and some violent. If there was an immediate reaction to that story on the streets, who would have likely caught the heat? The writer or the editors?
Within one week before this story ran, a cameraman in Pittsburgh was brutally beaten and a crowd of right-wing vigilantes beat up a journalist in South Philly, Payday Report noted.
And it seems there is some history of editorial decisions at the Philadelphia Inquirer creating hostility toward the journalists because they wrote:
“It is an insult to our work, our communities, and our neighbors to see that trust destroyed—and makes us that much more likely to face threats and aggression. The carelessness of our leadership makes it harder to do our jobs, and at worst puts our lives at risk.”
That underscores another problem that arises when editors twist writers’ words. It can erode trust and create conflict between the writers and the people they interact with.
“We’re tired of working for months and years to gain the trust of our communities — communities that have long had good reason to not trust our profession — only to see that trust eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions,” the journalists’ letter said.
If you haven’t already experienced it, please be aware from this moment forward that editors twisting your stories and trying to use your work to execute an agenda can destroy the relationship between you and your sources.
For many writers, especially journalists, relationships in the community or the industries we cover, are extremely valuable, not only for us, but also for the publications we write for.
Once those relationships get damaged, they can be very difficult, if not impossible, to repair.
And don’t think time or changing from one publication to another will magically heal the wounds. Bad editorial decisions can haunt your writing career for a long time.
Concocting A Balanced Story
A lot of publications deem themselves to be a neutral voice. They say they’re unbiased; they’re just there to tell the story.
But too many conflicting objectives get in their way, and they end up doing the complete opposite.
In an effort to show neutrality, publications often skew stories because they want to soften the impact. They want to avoid controversy, or they want to keep Tom, Dick and Harry from getting pissed off.
They want to court sponsors and appease the owners. But yet they want to be talking about what’s trending.
Instead of being neutral, a lot of publications neutralize the story. And by doing that, they make themselves biased.
Being biased means showing an inclination for or against something. So, even if you stick to the middle, that’s a position you choose above the left and the right. You’re biased.
Telling stories that reflect positively or negatively on someone or something doesn’t make a publication, or a writer, biased. More often than not, things will fall on one side of the line or the other. Every story can’t boil down to two good opposing points.
Likewise, concocting balance doesn’t make a publication, or a writer, neutral. It makes you worthy of skepticism and may make you guilty of deception because you’re interfering.
When you try to balance things out, you’re trying to level the playing field, trying to give equal merit to a side or view that doesn’t deserve it.
Beware of editors who constantly push you to present another side. Think about what purpose is served by expanding the conversation. Think about what’s being lost, changed or altered when you try to balance a story.
You’ll probably find a disservice is being done to someone or something some kind of way.
The 44 Journalists of Color at the Philadelphia Inquirer who signed that letter, said not only do they report on the community, but they are the community. And editorial decisions to twist and balance their work resulted in stories that “fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality.”
Those journalists called in sick and tired so they could stand alongside those who have risen up against systemic racism and inequities.
As writers, if we aren’t careful, if we don’t use sound judgment, and if we don’t take a stand for what we stand for, we could end up in the crosshairs with publications that have views or take positions we don’t agree with.
Also Read: Recognizing Negativity in Your Circle