Perception of fairness

Two UTA students, one an alumna, competed and did pretty well in the Miss Texas pageant held July 2 at Texas Hall.

Try naming them.

My bet: You could name Christi Kibler, the dark-haired alumna with an electric smile who came in fourth runner-up. But who was the other?

I couldn’t tell you her name without looking it up (It’s Ashley Simien, a journalism senior.). I also wouldn’t know what Ashley looked like – in two weeks of coverage, The Shorthorn didn’t run her photograph in print. We did run her photograph online last week. So in two weeks of coverage, we met Christi twice (text and visual, both times) and Ashley once (in text only)

The numbers don’t add up. And that affects reader perception and news value. In fact, we received a few phone calls critiquing our decision to not run photos of Ashley.

Fair, balanced news coverage is something media outlets strive toward. A lot of time, we talk about that principle in terms of opposing stakeholders – think conflicts of ideas, physical or the like. But a sneaky fairness issue can creep in when we’re talking about more than just WHAT we’re covering, but HOW.

Highlighting one of two women over the other tells readers one is more important than the other. That’s where the storytelling, photo selection and placement all come into play. We’ve talked about showing our subjects rather than just telling about them – completing the story.

The lesson: Show readers who you are describing in your stories, especially when they are among the main subjects. If two students receive scholarships, let’s represent them each with a photo of them in their environments. If three professors are honored and written about in a brief, talk to all of them and include mug shots of each. It’s not just about fairness to the subject, but to the readers: not showing them the subjects visually is telling only half the story.

How else do fairness issues creep into stories that media outlets tell? Share your comments below.

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