As a journalist, I make value judgments every day in my writing and reporting. For instance, “John Smith” is a good source, in my opinion, so I will cite him in my recent story on “bananas.” And that report from the XYZ agency’s inspector general is solid so it also deserves a reference. These are generally snap judgments made throughout any day and most of it is so instinctive, little thought goes into them.
Things get a bit tricky when it comes to moral judgments. At all costs I try to keep my own moral judgments out of my articles. This is easy for me because my subjects rarely relate to anything inherently moral.
But the subject is morality in this Los Angeles Times article by Stephanie Simon, who we’ve given much deserved praise in the past. The story is about a lawsuit for the “Right Not to Tolerate Policies.” Check out the lead:
ATLANTA — Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant.
Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she’s a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation.
Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she’s demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy.
So is Malhotra seeking the right to be intolerant, or the right to speak out against homosexuality? We’re talking about two separate moral philosophies and two separate value judgments. Can both exist at the same time? That depends on your point of view. I think we know what Simon thinks from the lead, and that’s too bad from a journalistic perspective.
Overall, it’s a well reported article, but Simon missed a subtle distinction that required a “for the record” update involving one of her sources that shows how complex this issue can be and how a journalist must leave all preconceptions behind.
The editorial page of the Times stepped in with an exceptional op/ed piece on the issue (lest any of you have concerns that the Times‘ editorial influenced Simon’s reporting, I can guarantee there is a giant wall between the editorial page and the newsroom):
It isn’t necessary — or even desirable — to protect gay students, Christian students or any other types of students from opinions they find hurtful. Indeed, the civil exchange of competing views is part of the purpose of higher education. Colleges have the right to protect students from harassment, but they must be careful not to trample on the 1st Amendment rights of other students.
How does that statement compare with the presumptions in Simon’s lead? Is it intolerant to oppose another person’s conduct, or is that just another way of expressing religious beliefs?