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Friday, December 20, 2013
Diversity Toolbox

Don't let pursuit of balance create false divides

By Sally Lehrman

Red state, blue state. White, black. Old, young. Citizen, immigrant. Journalists and their audiences seem to live in a world of opposites, with not much information in between.

Observing the dichotomies that dominated coverage of the government shutdown, the Affordable Care Act, immigration and countless other topics, I’m reminded of a classic essay by developmental biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling. In “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” Fausto-Sterling challenges our binary thinking, specifically the oversimplified way we normally think about gender and biological sex. There’s even a political twist.

Fausto-Sterling opens her argument with the case of Levi Suydam, who in 1843 petitioned for the right to vote in a highly contested town election in Connecticut. The opposition party claimed that his feminine propensities disallowed his right to vote. But doctors confirmed Suydam was indeed male, and the Whigs won the election by one ballot.

The seemingly obvious “two-party” sexual system Fausto-Sterling explains actually defies nature. Humanity comes in a wide assortment. Our chromosomes, cells, hormones, anatomies and cultural presentations do not neatly align into two distinct and opposite sexual camps. Levi Suydam, it was later discovered, also had female physical features.

Journalists can learn something from biology, and not just when it comes to sex. The SPJ Code of Ethics says we should be honest, fair and courageous. We should support open exchange of views (even views we find “repugnant”). The new ethical principles proposed by a group convened by Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, director of American Press Institute, agree. The principles remind us to be fair and to disseminate competing perspectives.

Prone to shorthand, however, journalists often boil down these ideals to one of “balance.” We cover “both sides.” This tradition resonates with journalists’ love for conflict, too, which we all know makes for a good story. And truthfully, we recognize that looking for conflict in a community or situation points us in the right direction. It pinpoints the junction where newsgathering is most needed to illuminate issues and delve into facts. But pitting one group against another informs no one.

This may seem mainly a problem in government, political and some science coverage. Journalists can easily find opposing camps and so present the world in clear extremes, overlooking the complexities in between. Reports on the October government shutdown, Dan Froomkin argues on Al-Jazeera America, abandoned facts in a reach for false equivalence between the Republican and Democratic parties’ roles. Balance becomes a battle of opinions, a “he said-she said” affair. In his new book “Informing the News,” Thomas E. Patterson cites a 2010 University of Maryland survey that found regular newsreaders are wrong on multiple issues, and worse yet, more misinformed about health care reform than other people. The reason? News media’s willingness to repeat falsehoods in the name of “balance.”

Our search for balance distorts in other ways, too. When we look for “both sides,” of course, we must split people into categories with clear boundaries. We began to essentialize. In an otherwise excellent article that unveiled the disturbing racial implications of states’ refusal to participate in Medicaid, The New York Times fell into a black-white binary trap.

The piece rightly pointed out that African-Americans would be hardest hit, as 68 percent live in states that will not expand health coverage. But 60 percent of poor whites also will be left out. This omission leads audiences to assume that white people don’t need aid, but black people do. The experience of Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans, also excluded from the story except in a chart, would have added helpful complexity to the picture.

Look out the window. Nature does not generally express herself solely in oppositional extremes. “Both sides” would seem a ridiculous term. In many of her publications, Fausto-Sterling pushes us to rethink our dichotomies and, as a result, deepen our understanding of nature and culture. By reaching beyond the political, racial, regional and the other binary categories we tend to lean on, journalists could promote more sophisticated understandings of society as well.

Sally Lehrman writes about science and social issues for national outlets and is a Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Senior Fellow at Santa Clara University. Interact on Twitter: @journethics.

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