Why should media give equal time to hate and discrimination?

June 23, 2023 8:00 am

If journalists are doing their job right, they're going to occasionally tick some viewers off.

A television station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is under fire because a news manager emailed news staff, telling them to dial back their coverage of Pride Month. It did not go over well with news staff, the community or station owners.

According to CNN, the assistant news director at NBC affiliate WOOD-TV sent an email titled “June Pride Month” that said the station had received pushback from viewers “who are not happy to see these Pride-related stories.”

The memo said, “We know that West Michigan is conservative in many ways. We need to recognize that some stories related to LGBTQ issues are going to be controversial and polarizing in our community.”

She continued, “If we are covering Pride events we need to consider how to make the story balanced and get both sides of the issue.”

You, as a news consumer, absolutely should occasionally get mad about something in the newspapers you read or the stations you watch.

Both sides of the Pride issue? I’m not sure how to do that. News staffers weren’t sure either. CNN quotes anchor Michele DeSelms, who tweeted “Our newsroom immediately stood up to the 2 managers who wrote the memo mandating we cover the ‘other side’ of Pride events. Essentially requiring us to give equal time to hate and discrimination. We said no, and will continue to fight for our LGBTQ colleagues, family members, friends and the community.”

Thankfully, the memo leaked out and it caused a big stink. The station owner is Nexstar, the nation’s largest owner of TV stations, including WHO in Des Moines and KCAU in Sioux City. The company launched an investigation into the memo, saying it is “not consistent with Nexstar values, the way we cover the news, or the respect we have for our viewers.”

Clearly, the news managers messed up. Taking criticism is part of every news manager’s job. It comes with the territory. If you’re doing your job right, you’re going to occasionally tick some viewers off. Journalism is not a popularity contest.

I always saw it as my job to be the one who takes the heat. I didn’t want the journalists in the newsroom to even know about incoming criticism. I wanted them focused on doing tough, aggressive reporting. I spent many hours each week talking to viewers via phone or email and trying to explain why we did a story in a certain way. Sometimes, it helped just to have the conversation. Sometimes I learned something. Most times, though, the viewer was just unhappy about the story.

Good journalism should challenge you

You, as a news consumer, absolutely should occasionally get mad about something in the newspapers you read or the stations you watch. If you are completely 100% happy with a news product, my guess is that newsroom is doing lots of stories about how cute puppies are and how many airplanes landed safely at the airport today. Good journalism should both inform you and challenge your beliefs.

That’s not to say our news staff was always perfect. Sometimes we messed up. We got a fact wrong. Or our coverage leaned decidedly one way. That’s also the news manager’s job to correct it, but behind closed doors, in a one-on-one conversation with the journalist. Don’t put it in a memo, especially these days when emails can easily be leaked to the outside world.

Working in a newsroom is like living in a fishbowl. Everybody can see everything, warts and all. Everyone has an opinion about what we do and how we do it. A news manager is always overly busy and under stress. I understand the temptation here to fire off an email to staff and cross one thing off a long to-do list.

It’s a lesson for all news managers to take a breath, talk through tough subjects with colleagues you trust, and only then decide how to act. And remember one of the golden rules for all managers: Praise in public. Criticize in private.

This column was first published by “Dave Busiek on Media” and is reprinted here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and its member writers to support their work.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dave Busiek
Dave Busiek

Dave Busiek spent 43 years working in Iowa radio and television newsrooms as a reporter, anchor and the last 30 years as news director of KCCI-TV, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines. In that role, he planned coverage of the Iowa caucuses, the floods of 1993 during which 250,000 central Iowans lost drinking water for 12 days, and organized the first national debate between Democratic candidates for president in 2015. He served as national board chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In 2014, he was Broadcasting and Cable Magazine’s News Director of the Year. He was inducted into the Iowa Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2018 and is a recipient of the Iowa Broadcast News Association’s Jack Shelley award. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He retired at the end of 2018. He is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative and his blog, "Dave Busiek on Media" appears on Substack.