My View | Denise Dunbar: Perspective fairness and free speech

My View | Denise Dunbar: Perspective fairness and free speech
(File Photo)

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees both freedom of speech and of the press, while organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists provide ethical codes with guidelines for good journalism.

Despite today’s abundance of one-sided media outlets, the essence of journalism isn’t to advance a particular perspective. However, good journalism also doesn’t dully shy away from controversy. Instead, good journalism keeps an eye on powerful people and interests through investigative work and treats different viewpoints as fairly as possible.

The preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics reads in part: “Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

At the Alexandria Times, we try our best to allow a forum for any perspective, unless it’s clearly fringe and intentionally offensive, because that’s what good newspapers do. We run pieces on our opinion pages critical of a variety of people and issues, including those that take aim at this newspaper. While we edit out personal attacks from letters – and reserve the right to reject any letter for any reason – we strive to let all voices be heard.

We run stories on an array of topics, noting that balanced coverage is not the same as an endorsement. For example, when white supremacist Richard Spencer was confronted at a local gym by Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair in 2017, we told his side of the confrontation as well as hers. But we also wrote about the Alexandrians who protested outside of Spencer’s office, which was then located in Old Town.

We also endeavor to allow freedom of expression in advertising. This week, we have an ad in the Times that some readers may wish wasn’t there: On page six is an ad that advocates a pro-life perspective on abortion.

While the Times reserves the right to reject any ad for any reason, as publisher I made the decision to accept this ad, which is part of a series, for several reasons that I would like to explain.

The first and most important reason I already stated: We strive to represent all perspectives in the Alexandria Times, and we would also be willing to run a pro-choice ad. Accepting this ad does not indicate our support as a paper for the perspective advocated any more than running campaign ads from candidates signifies our endorsement.

Second, we do not engage in viewpoint discrimination so long as the viewpoint expressed is not fringe or deliberately shocking. The pro-life movement is certainly mainstream, though not the majority perspective in Alexandria, and these ads are not graphic or shocking.

Diversity of perspective is as important as any other type of diversity. Increasingly in this country, it seems as though people don’t want to see or hear any views that differ from their own.

If I were to say, “Because Alexandria is a predominantly liberal city, I’m going to suppress perspectives that aren’t liberal” it would be an exercise in viewpoint discrimination. Taking that route might be easier, but it wouldn’t be honest journalism, and I believe viewpoint diversity extends to news coverage, opinion pages and advertisements.

Finally, the same First Amendment text protecting the Times’ right to run the content we see fit also protects citizens’ rights to disagree and to hold, speak and write any opinion on any topic, so long as it’s not slanderous or libelous.

Some readers may not like the ad we ran in this week’s Times. That’s their constitutionally guaranteed right. But as long as I’m publisher of the Times, this newspaper will remain a place where if we err, it will be on the side of free expression.

The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times. She is also on the board of the D.C. Metro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.