News Value & Fairness

It's Good for Ratings, But is it News?
By Carl Sullivan

Four times a year, it's sweeps month at local television stations. And that often means celebrities, sex, and more sex.

But the annual quest for broadcast ratings supremacy can sometimes result in inaccurate or unbalanced stories about sexual minorities. And print outlets can be just as guilty.

Consider the public sex stories that some TV stations have run during sweeps in February or November. Or newspaper stories about police arrests for public lewdness or similar charges. Is the fact that men meet for sex in a public restroom really newsworthy? Or is it sensationalism? These questions are debatable, but there are some points that responsible journalists should keep in mind during sweeps time — and year round for that matter.

Fairness is a key tenet of journalism, and questioning whether a story is fair is always a healthy exercise for a responsible newsroom. "My best advice would be to evaluate each and every story we do based on its news value and not its potentially sensational value," says Keith Connors, executive news director at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, N.C. "Someone's sexual orientation is irrelevant. So is race, gender, etc. The true gauge should be how important is the story to the community you cover."

Public sex may or may not be a story, Connors says. "If the public bathroom is in the middle of a park where children play and these acts — gay, straight, whatever — are taking place in the middle of the day with children nearby, and this has resulted in angry parents raising it as an issue, it sounds like a story."

Journalists should carefully consider the impact of these stories on the subjects. In many cases, the men involved may be deeply closeted, married and not identify themselves as gay. If your station or newspaper doesn't routinely identify men arrested for soliciting female prostitutes, then is it consistent to publicly identify men rounded up by authorities for seeking sex with other men? And since these men may not identify themselves with the gay community, journalists should be careful about labeling them as "gay."

Journalists might also want to question police about their motives: Are the same resources devoted to curbing illicit heterosexual behavior? As Connors suggests, authorities may have valid reasons for their actions. But a healthy dose of skepticism should be part of the journalist's modus operandi.

And remember that there are likely local gay and lesbian leaders who can be resources for stories about sexual behavior. "There's a gay and lesbian community in almost every area of this country," says Court Passant, a former NLGJA board member and senior producer at a national television network. "You need to find out who the gatekeepers are in that community. You can't rush stories that involve social norms. Take your time and get it right the first time."

During sweeps, Passant advises that journalists make sure their stories are journalistically sound. "Ratings are used to set advertising rates, and all journalists are in the business of circulation," he says. "We want viewers to watch. But there should be a good exchange of ideas in the newsroom. How? You make sure your newsroom is diverse and reflects the community you're in. Then fair and balanced stories come naturally."

Connors points to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) code of ethics as instructive. Under "fairness," there are several points that journalists of all stripes would be well served to review, including:

    Treat all subjects of news coverage with respect and dignity, showing particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy.
  • Seek to understand the diversity of their community and inform the public without bias or stereotype.
  • Present analytical reporting based on professional perspective, not personal bias.
    These are good rules to remember for stories on any topic or medium.

For more information on ethics and journalistic fairness, consider these Web sites:

RTNDA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
The Poynter Institute for Media Studies Ethics Resources
ASNE Ethics by State
Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
Associated Press Managing Editors Code of Ethics