Chick-fil-A debate shows it's more than getting quotes right

Posted8/5/2012 5:00 AM

Several years ago, an abortion protest ended up at the Lisle offices of the Daily Herald. As I recall, the group had rented a bus and was visiting abortion clinics throughout DuPage County. The protesters -- and a reporter from a weekly newspaper -- converged in the lobby of our building. I presume the driver simply went to the wrong address.

One of the protesters was asked why she was there. "They're doing abortions in there." was the answer I recall, though it might very well have been, "They're killing babies in there." I remember this well because the weekly reporter put the quote in the story. Let there be no doubt on this point: To the very best of my knowledge, we never have performed an abortion here.

This incident came to mind during our coverage of the Chick-fil-A controversy. Wednesday was decreed an appreciation day for the company by national radio host Mike Huckabee because the Chick-fil-A was drawing heat for its owner's criticism of gay marriage.

It was a national deal, but the issue had some significant local ties. A Chicago alderman, backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was threatening to somehow stop the fast-food franchise from opening a new restaurant in the city because of its anti-gay attitude. That prompted a Lombard village board member to draft and get preliminary approval of a resolution supporting Chick-fil-A and other companies' right to do business regardless of their owners' views.

So we sent reporters to Chick-fil-A's in Lombard and Schaumburg, and there were sizable turnouts. Passionate people were on hand to express their support for Chick-fil-A, the company's right to do business without unfair government intrusion, their owner's right to free speech, their right to a good chicken sandwich. But in their passion, a few people might have gotten caught up in the moment and said some things that weren't factually accurate, such as the majority of Americans being opposed to gay marriage. Perhaps in the early versions of the story we posted online we might have taken a harder look at giving people a say, but not allowing them to play fast and loose with the truth.

This is a slippery, delicate and sometimes unnavigable slope. We certainly have an obligation, nay, a sacred duty, to give people their voice. And when people feel strongly enough to show up at a chicken joint to express their love and support for the First Amendment, we certainly need to report on that. On the other hand, we need to avoid being their boosters. We need to do more than just accurately report what everyone has to say. The weekly newspaper reporter who included the quote about abortions being performed at the Daily Herald was wrong. Surely she knew where she was, knew the protester was wrong, but apparently felt as long she quoted the protester accurately, it was fair game. But what if we were a business, say, a clinic of some type, that could have been damaged by the inaccuracy of the protester's allegation? Would the mere accuracy of the quote been a valid defense for using it?

Similarly, in something as emotionally charged and divisive as gay marriage, we have an obligation to do more than parrot back what everyone has to say -- or at least make sure possibly untrue comments are given appropriate context or an opposing side's rebuttal. That's why the final version of the story had some of the suspect quotes removed, and we solicited some views from the "other side," which noted the "kiss-in" counterprotests planned for Friday.

In a story as controversial as this, not everyone is pleased with our approach. But if the majority of you believe we've made a concerted effort to be fair, to have presented both sides, then we've achieved a basic tenet of good journalism.

Jim Davis is editor of the Daily Herald's DuPage County editions.

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