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Sept. 27, 2019, 2:59 p.m.

Is a journalist calling out the impact of racism “bias”?

The BBC reprimands a morning-show host for saying a racist comment by Donald Trump made her furious: “Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists.”

One of my favorite bits of media theory is the concept of Hallin’s spheres. Daniel Hallin, in his 1986 book on media coverage of the Vietnam War, said that you could put every topic the media covers inside one of three spheres: the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate controversy, and the sphere of deviance. Journalistic objectivity — while treated like an absolute moral value and professional code — works differently in those three spheres.

The sphere of consensus contains the bedrock values and beliefs of a journalist’s political environment. “Slavery is wrong.” “Crime is bad.” “Old people starving to death is bad.” “Democracy is a good system of government.” Journalists feel free to take these core society beliefs as givens; they don’t feel obliged to get some to argue “Actually, slavery was good!” to provide balance.

The sphere of legitimate controversy contains the vast majority of subjects the press covers. These are the “Democrats want to do X, Republicans want to do Y” stories — ones where there is an active debate about what is the correct path forward. (“Should taxes on rich people be higher or lower?”) In this sphere, journalists see balance as critical to their job as fair brokers of multiple points of view. They also feel that to express their personal opinion opens them up to accusations of bias.

The final sphere, the sphere of deviance, holds the ideas that are just too out there to be discussed in polite society. Maybe they’re crazy ideas: “Mike Pence is actually just a well-dressed Hot Pocket.” More likely, they’re ideas on the political extremes: “The complete wealth of all billionaires should be immediately seized by the state.” “The United States should have no armed forces.” “All non-white people should be rounded up and thrown out of the country.” “America should immediately nationalize all industries.” “Public education should be abolished.” These are ideas that journalists generally consider either too extreme to demand a place in their coverage or so out there that they will actively try to keep them out.

The key thing to know about Hallin’s spheres is that ideas move between them over time.

“Chattel slavery is great” is waaaay out in the sphere of deviance today — but read some newspapers from the 1850s and you’ll find it squarely in the realm of legitimate controversy. It wasn’t that long ago that, for many news organizations, “Climate change is real” was also open for debate, with the claims of scientists “balanced” out by Big Oil-funded think tanks saying it’s no big deal. Thankfully, in the past decade, it’s moved much closer to consensus.

Ideas can be pushed by political actors. “Ban Muslims from entering the United States” was deviant in polite company — until the day Donald Trump proposed it as federal policy, when it became something a panel could debate on CNN. “Private insurance should be eliminated and the government should provide health care for all Americans” was way out there for decades — but now it’s a platform plank for leading Democratic candidates for president.

And note that an idea’s movement is often related to shifts in public opinion — but not always. News stories about a new fossil discovery don’t feel obliged to seek comment from someone saying “Fossils can’t be real, the earth is only 7,000 years old” — even though around 40 percent of Americans think that’s true. “Barack Obama is the antichrist” was never a view taken seriously by mainstream media, even though a quarter of Americans either thought he was or weren’t sure. Sometimes elite consensus is what defines the spheres, not public consensus.

All that is prologue to the latest controversy in British media, which is over these comments made by BBC Breakfast host Naga Munchetty in July, after Donald Trump told four minority congresswomen they should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Have a listen:

Every time I’ve been told, as a woman of color, to go home, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism. Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.

After the video embedded above ends, Munchetty’s cohost then asked her how she felt hearing those words from Trump.

Furious. Absolutely furious, and I can imagine lots of people in this country will be feeling absolutely furious a man in that position thinks it’s OK to skirt the lines by using language like that.

So what sphere are those ideas — (1) that telling someone a person of color to “go back to where you came from” is racist, and (2) that a reporter can be “furious” at racism — in? Legitimate controversy, meaning a journalist should present different points of view on the question and not stake a public claim to the rightness of one of them? Or consensus, meaning it’s so obviously true that it’s not a violation of the journalist’s code to say one side is correct?

The BBC says “legitimate controversy.” It reprimanded Munchetty this week for her comments:

The BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty breached the broadcaster’s editorial guidelines after she criticised racist comments by Donald Trump about the backgrounds of four female politicians, the corporation has ruled…

The clip of their brief discussion went viral, with the BBC’s own accounts pushing it out on social media where it reached hundreds of thousands of people. But after a viewer complaint the corporation’s complaints unit decided that Munchetty had gone too far in expressing a personal opinion while broadcasting in her capacity as a BBC journalist.

A BBC spokeswoman said the complaints unit “ruled that while Ms Munchetty was entitled to give a personal response to the phrase ‘go back to your own country’ as it was rooted in her own experience, overall her comments went beyond what the guidelines allow for”.

People — especially journalists and other media people of color — were not happy with that at all.

Sangita Myska, a BBC correspondent, said “there is a lot of bewilderment among BAME [black, Asian, and minority ethnic] staff” about the decision, while the former China editor Carrie Gracie has said the ruling was perplexing given “telling the truth and celebrating diversity” is a core BBC value and “we speak out when something is not right”.

The Newsnight correspondent Gabriel Gatehouse said: “I propose a little thought experiment: if a BBC presenter suggested on air that a black Brit should ‘go back to where they came from’ and viewers complained the remark was racist, would the BBC uphold such a complaint? One would hope so.”

The chancellor, Sajid Javid, tweeted the corporation on Thursday night, backing the presenter. “C’mon BBC. This is ridiculous. It’s perfectly understandable why she said what she did.”

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said the BBC would have to explain this “astonishing decision”.

“Naga Munchetty stated a fact. She shared experiences of racism she’s suffered. That can’t be at odds with any editorial guidelines,” he said.

(You may remember a similar debate among journalists in the United States over the propriety of calling Trump’s “go back” tweets racist.)

Earlier today, a group of more than 60 U.K. journalists and broadcasters of color issued a joint statement against the BBC’s ruling:

In a clarification of its decision-making, in response to widespread public criticism – including from an unprecedented number of British entertainment and broadcasting figures of colour – on 26 September it said: “[Munchetty] understandably feels strongly on this issue, and there was nothing wrong with her talking about her own experiences of racism. However our editorial guidelines do not allow for journalists to then give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so … and it was for this reason that the complaint was partially upheld. Those judgments are for the audience to make.”

We, the undersigned group of people of colour who work in the media and broadcasting in the UK, strongly condemn this finding and assert that it amounts to both a misunderstanding of the BBC’s editorial guidelines, and a form of racially discriminatory treatment towards BAME people who work on programming.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines allow for “professional judgment, rooted in evidence”, and require “cultural views in other communities” to be taken into account. The ECU – which we believe does not reflect the diverse cultural views in the BAME communities in the UK – has failed to acknowledge the following:

• Racism is not a valid opinion on which an “impartial” stance can or should be maintained;

• For communities and individuals who experience racist abuse – including Munchetty – being expected to treat racist ideas as potentially valid has devastating and maybe illegal consequences for our dignity and ability to work in a professional environment, as well as being contrary to race equality and human rights legislation;

• To suggest a journalist can “talk about her own experiences of racism” while withholding a critique on the author of racism (in this case President Trump) has the ludicrous implication that such racism may be legitimate and should be contemplated as such

But the BBC is sticking to its guns and defending its original decision:

[BBC director of editorial policy] David Jordan said that under the corporation’s editorial guidelines Munchetty was allowed to accurately describe Trump’s comments as racist, she was allowed to objectively analyse the impact that such racist comments have on herself and other people of colour, but she was not allowed to express a personal opinion on the motives and character of the person making those racist comments.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the ruling had been misinterpreted by the public: “The line is not about calling out racist comments — which is perfectly acceptable when things are clearly framed in racist language — it’s about how you go on to discuss the person who made the comments and make assumptions or remarks about that.

“In the politics of the present, when we are in a politics of name-calling and insult, I think it’s probably unwise of the BBC to be calling out people for being liars or racist. What is really important is that we look at the things people say, we analyse them, we describe them objectively. If someone’s told a lie, we call it out for being a lie. If someone’s made a racist remark, we make sure people are aware that they’re inherently racist.

“The issue is about when she went on further to discuss President Trump himself, what his motivations were for that, and that breached our impartiality requirements. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political, or industrial controversy.”

So, if I’m getting this right, the BBC needle-threading here is:

  • If Donald Trump says something racist, you can call it racist.
  • But if you are asked how racist comments make you feel, you can’t answer that one. Because that’s “the personal opinions of our journalists or current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political, or industrial controversy.”

Quite the distinction! It relies on the idea that whether or not racism is good — or, more specifically, whether or not racism should make you “furious” — is just another matter up for debate. (“Matters of public policy, political, or industrial controversy” is essentially a synonym for “the sphere of legitimate controversy.”)

We fight these battles over and over again. Is it okay for a trans reporter to say “objectivity” isn’t a standard he aspires to if the question is “should trans people be allowed to exist?” (“It matters who is making editorial decisions: I think marginalized people, more than ever now, need to be at the table shaping the stories the fact-based news media puts out.”) Can a journalist who is the daughter of an immigrant mention that fact in response to anti-immigrant rhetoric? (“The Cronkite School should stop trying to train an entire generation of brilliant young people to be bootlickers.”)

I don’t think journalism is going to thrive if it keeps telling people that they have to leave core parts of their identity at the door. If black journalists can’t say racism is bad, if gay journalists can’t say discrimination against gay people is bad, if women journalists aren’t allowed to say sexism is bad, you’re asking people to put their own humanity up for debate — to put themselves in the “sphere of legitimate controversy.”

Doing that makes the effort to diversify newsrooms, especially their leadership, even harder. In a completely unrelated matter, these are the people who decided to reprimand Naga Munchetty, emphasis mine:

The BBC declined to comment on the make-up of the editorial complaints unit, although the Guardian understands it consists of seven individuals with only two women and no one from an ethnic minority background. Several members are former BBC current affairs programme editors approaching retirement.

Photo of the hosts of BBC Breakfast — Naga Munchetty third from left — via BBC.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Sept. 27, 2019, 2:59 p.m.
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