Unequal doesn’t equal bias

The two readers agreed on one thing: The AJC’s reporting on the recent Chick-fil-A controversy was biased.

Each emailed us blasting our coverage of the debate, touched off when Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy made remarks interpreted as opposing gay marriage. The story culminated when Cathy supporters organized a nationwide “Appreciation Day” on Aug. 1 and same-sex marriage advocates proclaimed a “Kiss-in” at the Atlanta company’s restaurants for Aug. 3.

Emailed one reader:

“Your handling of the Chick-fil-A thing is not only a laughable attempt at unbiased journalism (assuming that’s what you intend), but this mess you have wrought will get you back to the nadir of your subscriber base. Nothing really has changed [at the AJC], at least when it comes to your unwavering and biased love affair with the gay movement.”

Wrote another reader:

“[Chick-fil-A coverage] is just another example of the AJC’s sharp turn to the political right in recent years. It is very obvious to us long-term readers that y’all are being intimidated by the Republican Party in Georgia. Stories that used to be neutral are now slanted towards the right in order to not offend the right wingers.”

Huh? Did these people read the same newspaper?

There’s a saying in newsrooms that goes, “If we made both sides mad, we must’ve been fair.” But with journalists under a microscope, we can’t afford to take that attitude.

The AJC has redoubled its commitment to balanced reporting. It’s something I talk about with editors, reporters and photographers every day.

But what does balance look like? It might help to explain how we approached those two events, just two days apart.

Since Chick-fil-A is an important local company, our business staff covered the story. We knew about the “Appreciation Day” and the “Kiss-in” well in advance, but there was no way to know how big each event would be. So we resolved to apply the same newsgathering resources — two reporters and a few photographers — to each.

On Wednesday, “Appreciation Day,” the reporters drove to Chick-fil-A restaurants all over metro Atlanta, gauging the crowds and talking to customers. Editors monitored the news wires to see what was happening in other cities, and we watched social media sites to see what people were saying.

At the end of the day, there was no way to make a credible estimate of how many Chick-fil-A fans participated. But we had seen large crowds, even traffic backups at many restaurants. This was extraordinary, and we assessed the news value as high. So we put the story on the next day’s front page.

When the “Kiss-in” came along on Friday, we sent out the same two reporters. They found much smaller groups of people. We checked restaurants throughout the area and gauged the proceedings as a modest demonstration or protest rather than a large grass-roots happening, as “Appreciation Day” was. Here’s where balanced coverage gets messy. While we felt there was news value in the “Kiss-in,” it was less newsworthy than the “Appreciation Day.” So we ran a short story inside the paper, on the Metro page.

Would “balanced coverage” have dictated that both stories run on the front page, at the same length?

Of course not. Doing that would have distorted what happened those days: a major community outpouring versus a smaller protest.

Should we have simply covered “Appreciation Day” and kissed off (sorry) the “Kiss-in”? Also unacceptable. Balance means reflecting both sides of a debate, even if the news value is unequal. Not to have written about the “Kiss-in” would also have ignored reality.

While we’re committed to providing balanced coverage in a deeply divided world, we’re just as committed to telling the truth. Those two ideals aren’t in conflict.

We let all sides have their say, and reflect their views in our pages and on our website.

But in the end, all things aren’t equal. Some stories make the front page and others don’t. We write about events and issues that some people consider unworthy. These are decisions we make daily. We keep balance in mind — and work hard to keep out bias — but we still exercise judgment.

That’s because you depend on us to help you make sense of the torrent of information that hits you every day.

You won’t always agree with the calls we make. But we’ve arrived at them earnestly, with the simple goal of telling you the truth.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wants to explain openly to readers what we do and why. Discuss this column and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of other areas at editor Kevin Riley’s Facebook page,