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A black and white photo of a man in an 1950's style suit posed in front of a mirror. He has one foot propped on a low table, and is holding a piece of paper in one hand and pointing up with his other hand
Sen. Joseph McCarthy poses in Washington on March 23, 1950, during his ongoing Red Scare-era witch hunts for communists. In the 2005 film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a fictionalized version of the legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow explained his reporting on McCarthy’s antics by saying he “simply cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument.” AP Photo/Herbert K. White

Editor’s Note | There Aren’t Two Equal Sides To Every Story

During my first semester as a journalism student at the University of Southern Mississippi School of Mass Communications and Journalism in Hattiesburg back in the fall of 2010, my professor, Dr. Cheryl Jenkins, had us watch “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

That 2005 film retells the story of legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s fearless truth-telling that exposed the horrors of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare-era witch trials that masqueraded as legitimate Senate inquiries. One scene proved instrumental in developing my journalistic ethos.

Faced with a network executive accusing him of bias and a lack of objectivity for his reporting on McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade, the on-screen Murrow (portrayed by David Strathaim) responds succinctly: “I’ve searched my conscience, and I can’t for the life of me find any justification for this, and I simply cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument.”

These debates continue in newsrooms and among journalists across the country as many from the old guard of news leadership continue to insist on presenting every story through the prism of “both sides.” It often results in constructions like this: “Candidate A says X, but Candidate B said Y”—without making it clear to readers what the truth is.

This past week, as NPR came under attack for an alleged culture of “wokeness” (whatever that means), Alicia Montgomery, a Black woman who previously worked as an NPR editor and producer, wrote an article in SLATE recounting what she described as the organization’s real problems. She pointed to the behind-the-scenes conversations she witnessed in 2016 as NPR, like other news organizations across the country, was grappling with how to cover the ascendent Donald Trump.

“For most of 2016, many NPR journalists warned newsroom leadership that we weren’t taking Trump and the possibility of his winning seriously enough,” Montgomery wrote in the April 16 article. “But top editors dismissed the chance of a Trump win repeatedly, declaring that Americans would be revolted by this or that outrageous thing he’d said or done.

“I remember one editorial meeting where a white newsroom leader said that Trump’s strong poll numbers wouldn’t survive his being exposed as a racist,” she continued. “When a journalist of color asked whether his numbers could be rising because of his racism, the comment was met with silence. In another meeting, I and a couple of other editorial leaders were encouraged to make sure that any coverage of a Trump lie was matched with a story about a lie from Hillary Clinton. Another colleague asked what to do if one candidate just lied more than the other. Another silent response.”

President Donald Trump speaks at a podium with the US flag behind him
The Washington Post identified 30,573 lies that Donald Trump told over the course of his four years in office. Official Trump White House Archive Photo by Shealah Craighead, File

Of course, the plain truth was that of course Donald Trump lied far more than Hillary Clinton (The Washington Post cataloged 30,573 lies over the course of Donald Trump’s four years in office). But that presented a problem for newsrooms who have long sought to create a façade of objectivity by matching any negative story about one candidate or one “side” with a negative story about another candidate or the other “side.” But reality is not always balanced and the truth cannot always be pigeonholed into two neat, equal boxes that will make partisans on all sides happy.

During Mississippi’s 2023 state elections, we at the Mississippi Free Press fact-checked claims that both the Republican candidate for governor, incumbent Tate Reeves, and his Democratic challenger, Brandon Presley, made. While we fact-checked about the same number of claims from both candidates, that was entirely coincidental; at no point did we ever publish a fact check of one of Reeves’ claims and then hold an emergency brainstorming session to come up with a claim by Presley we could fact check to balance things out (or vice versa). If one candidate had made dubious claims at 10 times the rate of the other, we would’ve published more fact-checks of that candidate’s claims.

I don’t want to pick on NPR, which does a lot of great work that often serves the public well. The urge to balance the unbalanceable with both-sides reporting that obscures the truth and denies clarity to readers and viewers is a problem that spans the American media ecosystem, from local publications to national news outlets like The New York Times and CNN.

The work of reporting the news is serious; it’s vital to democracy. And as journalists, our job is to tell people the truth without filtering it through our own personal political views, or through considerations about whether partisans will consider it balanced enough, or through concerns about who it makes look bad and who it makes look good. We just need to tell the truth.

Please continue to support the Mississippi Free Press’ truth-telling journalism and our work growing and protecting democracy in the Magnolia State by giving, in any amount you can, to our spring “You the People” campaign.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to azia@mississippifreepress.org. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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