“Both Sides” Journalism, Crossing the Bigfoot Line in a Culture of Mass Shootings

Over a couple of days, I interacted with two journalists considering or working on articles about education (one about arming teachers and the other about a major charter chain in the Midwest).

One journalist was soliciting through Facebook teachers’ opinions on arming teachers, asking specifically for both teachers for and against*. The other journalist arranged a phone interview with me about “no excuses” approaches to discipline in schools, a conversation that ended with requesting if I knew other scholars/professors who were for “no excuses” practices (since I had spoken conclusive against).

In my course on scholarly reading and writing in education, students are applying critical discourse analysis to how media cover key education issues, and then framing that against the high-quality research base on those issues. Two of the concerns we are confronting about media include “both sides” journalism [1] (providing both sides of an issue as a foundational approach to all issues) and crossing the Bigfoot line [2] (reporting on the fact of something being claimed—as in writing a story about someone claiming to see Bigfoot—with no context of whether the claim is credible).

If an article on arming teachers flatly states that arming teachers is currently a debate (which crosses the Bigfoot line) and then includes 2-3 teachers for and 2-3 teachers against, most readers will conclude that the debate is a simple for/against issue with both sides equally credible and equally supported by teachers.

John Warner, however, confronts that simplistic approach:

The gravity of the position of president contributes to the media crossing the Bigfoot line and shirking their critical obligations by, as Warner notes, promoting a non-debate debate.

When the other journalist inquired about scholars/professors supporting “no excuses” practices, I warned about the need to consider the credibility of those scholars (since the ones I could identify have clear conflicts of interest because of the funding for their endowed chairs and department).

“Both sides” journalism and crossing the Bigfoot line, then, fail public discourse and likely public policy because they misrepresent the proportion of support for issues (some issues are fairly equally supported, but many issues are well established on one side and have almost no credibility on the so-called “other” side—think Holocaust denial) and fail to address the credibility of that support**.

Here, we also confront the problem with polling. Polls after the Parkland, Florida school shooting show the general public supports gun control and are about split on arming teachers:

Nearly two-thirds of Americans support stricter laws on gun sales, including an increasing number of Republicans, but the public divides on the idea of allowing more teachers and school officials to carry guns. Arming teachers draws partisan splits, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed, a CBS News poll reveals.

Therefore, crossing the Bigfoot line illustrates that reporting the fact of this data fails to address whether or not those opinions are informed.

A “both sides” media are not making the critical step of investigating if public opinion matches research and evidence.

How might the public respond to arming teachers if first informed about the very low accuracy rate of trained officers in active shooting incidents? About the likelihood that officers will fire on anyone holding a gun in an active shooter event?

That people think something is accurate is dangerous if those beliefs aren’t supported by evidence—and if the democratic process allows public belief to drive public policy.

A critical media would frame that calling for arming teachers is deeply flawed and not supported by evidence on guns, active shooter events, and research on safety policies for schools—regardless of political and public support.

A country with school shootings, mass shootings, and gun violence as common place tragedies cannot afford a misinformed political leadership and public, and without a critical media, we have little chance of rising above and then moving beyond being a negligent country that fiddles while children die regularly in a spray of gunfire.

In a recent class, as we discussed my exchanges with journalists and the problems with “both sides” journalism, one student asked what journalists should do, specifically raising concerns about not including alternative viewpoints.

This critical and important question leads to recognizing that “both sides” journalism ultimately is overly simplistic and that covering issues is far more complex—requiring journalists to evaluate the topic and the credibility of viewpoints before deciding how to present the topic in a way that reflects the proportion and credibility of so-called “sides.”

Once we acknowledge that we make this choice all the time—for example, media covering domestic abuse never seek out those who endorse hitting spouses/women—we then can seek media standards that are critical and informative instead of striking a faux and harmful pose of neutrality.

That neutrality is always a lie since covering a topic, crossing the Bigfoot line, is a political act in itself and one that does far more harm than good—especially in moments of great violence and the urgency required to make better choices as a free people.

* See Arming Upstate teachers: Enthusiastic support, fierce opposition

** Follow this thread:


[1] See Mainstream “Both Sides” Journalism Continues to Ignore Critical Third Way

[2] See Mainstream Media and the Rise of Fake News: Crossing the Bigfoot Line and When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line