Because Fair Isn’t Necessarily Balanced…

National Public Radio has just adopted new ethics guidelines. We can only hope they signal the beginning of a wide trend in the media.

The new code stresses the importance of accuracy over false balance; it appears–finally–to abandon the “he said, she said” approach (what I have elsewhere called “stenography masquerading as reporting”) that all too often distorts truth in favor of a phony “fairness.”

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

One of my gripes over the past several years has been the abandonment of precisely this tenet of good journalism. A good example has been environmental reporting–how many times have media sources reported on climate change, for example, by giving equal time and weight to ┬áthe settled science and the deniers, without ever noting that the deniers constitute less than 1% of all climate scientists, and are generally regarded as a kooky fringe? That’s “balance,” but it certainly isn’t “fair to the truth.”

A few years ago, this sort of false equivalency was illustrated by one of my all-time favorite Daily Show skits. The “senior journalism reporter” was explaining the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John Kerry to Jon Stewart. “The Swift Boat Veterans say this happened; the Kerry Campaign says it didn’t. Back to you, Jon!” When Stewart then asked “But aren’t you going to tell us who is telling the truth?” ┬áthe response was dead-on. “Absolutely not, Jon. This is journalism.”

Far too often, reporters pursue artificial balance at the expense of truth. If a Democratic campaign plays a dirty trick, reporters rush to remind their audience of a similar transgression by Republicans, and vice-versa. This search for equivalency may be well-intentioned, but it misrepresents reality and misleads those of us who depend upon the media for accurate information.

NPR’s recognition of this pernicious practice, and it’s new Code of Ethics, are a welcome sign that at least some journalists might be returning to Job One: telling us the unembellished truth.

8 thoughts on “Because Fair Isn’t Necessarily Balanced…

  1. Had we not had the Enlightment, we wouldn’t even need to bother about searching for the truth, or worry about “fair and balanced”. The snobbery of desiring a higher education would have died a-borning. We definitely need a congressional hearing to determine who and what started all of this and pass some blunt legislation to remedy it. (:

  2. We’re supposed to believe our local paper tells “the truth” on residency and voting, when they find abundant space to report on Charlie White, but hardly anything on Senator Lugar or former Senator Bayh?

    The New York Times has front page coverage of the importance of the personal emails of Sarah Palin, but seems unconcerned about the education, health, and political records of President Obama during the last election?

    Isn’t “the truth” ascertained from presenting and weighing both sides of an issue, from facts gathered by one or more media sources? You want “he said, she said”, or you’d rather have your facts pre-digested and not have to think too much?

    There’s supposed to be a difference between the front page and the editorial page, and with NPR’s reporting and the ideology of their daytime hosts. I certainly don’t agree with everything said by Juan Williams, whether on NPR or Fox. But, he is part of airing both sides of the issues.

    If NPR refuses to present both sides to let the listener make up their mind, then no wonder Congress considers not funding them and they’re now NPR instead of National “Public” Radio.

  3. Dave, what if a news agency gave equal weight and time to those people who believe the earth revolves around the sun, and those people who believe the sun revolves around the earth, just so they can claim to be “balanced” and so we can make up our own minds which of these two theories to believe?

    And what if they failed to note, in the interest of balanced reporting, that every reliable observation of the solar system for hundreds of years, suggests that one theory is correct and the other theory is batsh*t crazy?

    As I read it, this new policy at NPR does not prevent journalists from explaining all relevant arguments for and against the issue on which they are reporting. It merely says that it is not helpful to leave out the fact that one side has a stronger and more persuasive argument than the other side, and the reasons why one argument is stronger and more persuasive. That’s not commentary; that’s accuracy.

  4. If we’re want to liken the White vs. Lugar and Bayh or Obama vs. Palin journalistic examples as “batsh*t crazy” and comparable to whether the earth rotates around the sun- I don’t know what to say.

    In a country routinely depicted as immersed in class warfare and incapable of even agreeing upon a budget, what do we gain by not airing both sides? There is incredible merit I’m missing in freedom of the press degenerating to deference to incumbent power, political correctness, and media self-preservation?

  5. Dave, that was your inference, not mine. I merely tried to think of an example of a pro-con argument where one side was clearly the correct position and the other side was clearly not. Further, it is you who is making this a fight between individuals (White vs. Lugar; Obama vs. Palin). I am trying to focus on ideas, not people. If Sarah Palin were to have a good idea, and Obama opposed it, I would probably support the good idea before I would support the individual.

    As for your second assertion, I don’t accept your premise that this is a choice between only airing one side, on the one hand, and supplying needed context to an airing of all relevant arguments. As I said before, the policy, as I read it, only encourages journalists to give their audience some context on the story they are presenting.

    If you are given two diametrically opposed statements, and, assuming you have no personal experience or knowledge regarding the topic of those statements, you are asked to make up your mind which statement is true and which is false, how would you go about doing that without some context to inform your decision? Essentially, that is what journalism as come to over the past couple of decades. We are given choices that are meaningless without knowing what is behind those choices, and we are expected to make good decisions. We may as well just flip a coin or do eeny-meeny-miney-moe to make decisions because we are being asked to decide based on nothing more than which side we like better, or which side jibes with our personal prejudices and beliefs.

  6. On a theoretical sense, I can buy some of this “context”. However:

    1) Do you think NPR gives a whit about “encouraging journalists to give their audience some context”, versus just wanting to persuade them to a particular stance. C’mon. Really.

    2) The New York Times and other mainstream sources somehow toughed it out for years (with more fiscal success and bipartisan accolades), before also apparently being influenced by the need for this “context”.

    3) If National “Public” Radio wants to take a slant on the days events like MSNBC, Glen Beck, or anybody else-great. I just suggest they pursue it without the limited funding from a public that is roughly 40% conservative, 20% liberal, and 40% in-between.

    I have difficulty understanding the disconnect between supporting greater civics education, yet a need to trust the “contextual sincerity” of a media source. For issues of such polled contention as our budget impasse, health care, and immigration- I prefer the “he said, she said” of stats, quotes, history from both sides, and a couple of talking heads with opposing viewpoints.

    If that is “context”- great, I’m with you. Short of that, I’m not.

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