I had always imagined that it was reflecting a range of views from within a community where something newsworthy had occurred. How wide is community in these global days?
To illustrate my point, a local post office closes in North West Scotland. None of the residents are disabled, elderly, or even use the post office – hence its closure. None of them are remotely worried by the closure. If a reporter is asked to cover the story, is it sufficient that he correctly reports that none of the inhabitants will be inconvenienced nor even mourn the passing of their community ‘asset’? Should he also include the views of inhabitants of a small hamlet in South East Cornwall, whose inhabitants would be shocked by such a closure if it happened to them?
Do the media have a duty to counterbalance one point of view with a politically correct view held by another community?
I pose the question because the New York Times has got itself into a terrible pickle. We must assume for the purpose of posing this question that the reporter concerned was accurately reporting a unified view from the community, and not censoring the quotes he included to uphold his own bias. Since it is the New York Times we are speaking of, it is reasonable to assume that this was a fully qualified, professional, and impartial reporter.
Down in Texas, in Cleveland, a despicable crime is alleged to have occurred. An 11 year old girl says she was raped by 18 different young men in an abandoned trailer. The trailer and the young men are all based in the same community. The young girl might be considered an ‘outsider’ coming as she did, from another country. The New York Times reporter headed down to the community where this attack occurred. He solicited the opinion of members of that community. The result has created a firestorm.
He managed to avoid mentioning that the alleged perpetrators were all black youths – but equally, so was the victim. He didn’t mention that fact either. So far so balanced.
However, the language he used to describe the alleged perpetrators has caused great offence. He pointed out that some were High School pupils, indeed two were members of the basketball team. Good points in their favour perhaps. Later, he adds that ‘a few’, no numbers mentioned, had criminal records, including in one case, manslaughter.
Then came the quotes:
“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”
A statement which many, outside of the community, felt reflected more concern for the perpetrators than the victim.
The killer quote was this one:
Residents in the neighbourhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.
“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbours who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”
As it happens, possibly quite easily, given that the Mother was suffering from several brain tumours, and both Mother and Daughter were outsiders in that community. Both have now left the area. So who is left to speak up for the victim? No one it seems.
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighbourhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?
‘Drawn in’, suggests that the consensus opinion was that this was all the fault of a precocious child. A point of view that enrages some in the wider community outside of the area where our intrepid reporter was reporting from.
The Houston Chronicle has a different take on the saga – they appear to be in the area where the family have now located, and interviewed help organisations who are in direct contact with the family, an article far more sympathetic to the girl and her automatic age related innocence, regardless of how she dresses, acts, or behaves.
The New York Times reporter wasn’t in Houston – he was in Cleveland where the sympathy was all for ‘our boys’. A few days later, The New York Times was crawling for forgiveness. Their Public Editor said:
My assessment is that the outrage is understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.
While the story appeared to focus on the community’s reaction to the crime, it was not enough to simply report that the community is principally concerned about the boys and men involved – as this story seems to do. If indeed that is the only sentiment to be found in this community – and I find that very hard to believe – it becomes important to report on that as well by seeking out voices of professional authorities or dissenting community members who will at least address, and not ignore, the plight of the young girl involved.
The issue under discussion is an emotive one. That shouldn’t cloud the central point of my question. Is it the responsibility of a reporter to ensure balanced reporting by trawling the entire universe until he finds a dissenting point of view – or if he is sent to one community to report on a story, can he report a unanimous view?
Take the political hot potato of rape, underage sex, and indeed, colour, out of this report, and apply the technique to less emotive subjects. Well, marginally less emotive – let’s take the UKs membership of the European Union! If every citizen in the UK unanimously condemns our membership – should our intrepid reporter be travelling to France or German for a dissenting view? Or does this theory only apply when faced with one of the current ‘hot potatoes’?
Is balanced reporting searching out a dissenting view wherever you have to go to find it, or is it truthfully reporting what you have found in the area you were sent to?