Exercising the power of the press

Publication YearIssue Date 

Working for a newspaper opens the door to a whole new world of possibilities. I, and anyone else in the media industry, deal everyday with people who want their stories heard. I'm deluged every morning with a new flood of information--phones, e-mails, faxes--from people who feel it's information the rest of the world needs to know.

Sorting through the chaos requires a few different qualities on my part: objectivity, insight and most of all, the willing suspension of cynicism. The most important of these is by far the first--without it I risk being swallowed by my own jaded perceptions, overwhelmed by the desire to tear teddy bear heads off and smash the frames of the rose-tinted glasses worn by the do-gooder smiling in the door. It's my responsibility to sort through the raw data and ensure that the people know what they need to know regardless of my personal feelings.

That responsibility, however, is balanced by privilege. I fiercely retain my right to remain human, a person with the right to freedom of opinion and thought that is not superseded by the responsibilities of the job. I may lean just a tad to the left, but I'm not so far gone that I'll sacrifice my sanity for public interest.

So this week, I made a conscious choice not to cover an event that happened over the weekend. A small but persistent group of anti-gay crusaders known as the Westboro Baptist Church paid a visit to our fair city to engage in what they call "love crusades." These are essentially protests using placards to warn homosexuals of the biblical doom awaiting them. One of these took place right outside the University of Calgary campus.

For those who weren't on campus on Saturday morning, don't weep. You only missed the hate-mongering of a magnitude both blinding and nauseating. The WBC makes liberal use of the words "hate," "sin," "filth," "reprobate" and "fag." I'll leave it up to you to figure out the rest.

For those who witnessed the display of prejudice thinly masked by religious zeal, I received your furious phone calls, your outraged e-mails and I share your concerns. It made my stomach turn, too. But I won't publish any article on the WBC and their activities here. I've spoken with chaplains on campus and other representatives of religious orders, and they agree the WBC does not represent any legitimate religious positions. They use snippets of scripture out of context to justify their existing bias and their views are not shared by the bulk of mainstream clergy--Baptist or otherwise.

So you may say I have a responsibility to report on their presence here and what they hoped to accomplish. I say I also have the responsibility to recognize that media coverage tends to legitimize movements like the WBC and I have no interest in directly or indirectly promoting their agenda. The promotion of violence and the dissemination of discriminatory sentiment and literature are both forbidden under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the WBC protests were stopped by the Calgary Police Service because they were doing these things. So who am I to give the WBC a voice when the Charter forbids it? I can't and won't believe my responsibility to the public extends that far.

If you really wanted to know who the WBC are or what they do, read Mein Kampf and substitute the word "fag" for the word "Jew."

I won't make a headline for a group that so flagrantly contravenes the legal rights of another group to indulge the WBC's ignorance. I may be neglecting a responsibility but I'm doing it to exercise my privilege to be human--to share the disgust, outrage and sorrow of everyone who saw the hate and was affected by it. I'm exercising the right to be partial, to feel that prejudice and judgment of this magnitude have no place in civil society. I'm exercising my right to feel tainted and corrupted by the very existence of such a group and I will forego journalistic responsibilities if it means retaining a shred of humanity in the face of such depraved, inhumane behaviour.

Ruth Davenport can be reached at ruth111@hotmail.com.