The National Football League, like the military, appears to do most of its work naked and in the showers based on the rhetoric that often appears when the issue of integrating gay men into their ranks arises.
A “shower panic” argument by former NFL player Kenneth Hutcherson–now a pastor and anti-gay activist in Washington state–in the Washington Post’s The League conversation about gays in the NFL raises an interesting question about when to include extreme rhetoric and views or quotes in an otherwise rational, balanced piece of journalism. Here’s what Hutcherson had to say:
It’s like having a woman on the team or having a woman in the shower. How can you keep your mind on the game when you’re thinking about running back to the showers? It would have a tremendous effect. It would be safer for the team and the individual if they didn’t come out.
The Hutcherson column doesn’t really make a lot of sense on a lot of levels, and that’s disappointing because the rest of the conversation–which includes David Kopay and Outsports.com’s Jim Buzinski–is actually realy interesting and balanced. Dealing with issues like homophobia in the African American community, homophobia in sports, and general questions about teamwork and masculinity make for a fascinating discussion and a great use of on-line journalism.
But back to Hutcherson and the showers. The journalism question is why–and when–someone with Hutcherson’s views should be presented in an otherwise reasoned discussion of LGBT issues. In this context–as part of a conversation with multiple opinions being presented as opinions–Hutcherson’s inclusion makes sense. He did play in the NFL, he does have a lot of opinions about gays, and while his opinions may be harsh, they do represent a segment of the opinions relating to gays in the NFL.
If I were writing a story about gays in the NFL, or about LGBT issues generally, would I include Hutcherson as a quote? Probably not. Journalists can be balanced and fair with lots of voices without always calling up the most extreme voices. Every story about LGBT issues does not require a quote from an anti-gay minister. Some stories do, of course, but not all of them. Fair and balanced does not mean seeking out the most extreme voices in an effort to provide “balance.”
I spent time covering the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in Congress and one of the big struggles was finding opposing voices to quote in stories. While there were plenty of spokespeople supporting ENDA, there were very few opposing it. That quandry meant sometimes the only spokespeople were some fairly extreme voices.
After a conversation with my editor, we ultimately decided that those extreme voices didn’t represent the mainstream of the opposition–and weren’t really connected to our readers’ concerns–so we decided we need to look for other sources. The challenge with ENDA as a business story is that the business argument against ENDA had few vocal opponents or people who wanted to be quoted in a story.
The lesson is that using extreme voices is often the path of least resistance. They answer the phone and put out press releases. But journalists need to try harder and not just use dial-a-quote extremists. Journalists also need to question whether they are really doing their readers–agree or not with LGBT issues–a service by using extreme voices that are outside the mainstream.