Objectivity Versus Balance

George Packer recently sent out a newsletter hawking subscriptions to the Atlantic. I’ve been a subscriber for many years, so I was preparing to delete the email, but it contained a description of genuine journalism that was so apt and timely–especially in the era of Fox and its clones–that I decided to share it.

Packer, as many of you know, is a highly respected political scientist, and author of several well-received books. He also writes for the Atlantic. He began his newsletter as follows:

When I went to Ukraine last May to report the story that appears in The Atlantic’s October issue, I didn’t go as a neutral observer. I very much wanted Ukraine to win the war, and I was happy to bring a suitcase full of medical supplies to Ukrainian doctors who would make sure the equipment reached soldiers at the front. If I’d been asked to do the same for doctors on the Russian side, I would have had no trouble refusing. Intellectually and morally, none of this was complicated. Ukraine is the victim of Russia’s unprovoked aggression, it is a smaller country bullied by a larger one, and it is a democratic society threatened by an imperial dictatorship. The stakes of the war were as clear and high as those of any event in living memory.

For all the high-minded, public-spirited justifications that journalists offer for what we do, at the bottom lies a fundamentally selfish motive. Some stories attract us for their novelty, others for their scale, or their complexity, or their sheer excitement. Ukraine attracted me because I wanted to see a cause in which I’d come to believe—because I’d chosen sides.

Isn’t “choosing sides” exactly what we don’t want journalists to do? Packer weighs in with an explanation of why that is the wrong way to think about the nature and necessity of objectivity.

Should this partisanship have given me ethical qualms? Should it bother readers of the article? Journalists are not licensed according to a professional code of ethics, but there’s a long-standing sense that we shouldn’t take sides—at least not openly. A reporter covering a presidential election is not supposed to announce which candidate he or she supports, and some reporters even abstain from voting at all to remain above suspicion. At an extreme, the idea of neutrality leads to an absurd pursuit of balance in which a lie on one side of a political divide is given equal status with the truth. At the opposite pole, journalists with a strong bias might hide important facts and shade their storytelling in intellectually dishonest ways to manipulate the reader to a prefixed conclusion. In one famous example, The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, a Stalin sympathizer, denied the existence of the Soviet-engineered famine in the early 1930s that killed several million Ukrainians.

Welcome to the Fox proclamation that its news coverage is “fair and balanced.”

As I used to tell the students in my Media and Public Policy classes, “balance” is most definitely not the same thing as “factual” or “objective.” The emphasis on balance has given us what observers call “stenography journalism”–he said/she said, we report, you decide. (For years, that approach undercut efforts to explain the gravity of climate change; it gave equal time and emphasis to the 97% of scientists who were issuing warnings and the 3% of outliers and outright cranks who denied it.)

Packer addressed the danger–and dishonesty–of that false emphasis.

There’s a great deal of space between both-sides-ism and Duranty-ism, between spurious balance and outright deception. In that space, journalists are bound to take sides. But choosing sides requires objectivity, which is very different from neutrality. Objectivity is the pursuit of truth regardless of subjective impulses or political commitments. It’s what makes it possible to choose sides and remain credible. Partisanship imposes an extra burden to keeping our minds open to whatever might challenge our biases, to being on guard for any impulse to suppress or self-censor. As Bob Dylan put it: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” (Emphasis mine.)

Journalists are human, and they will get things wrong. As with all humans, they can see only through their own eyes. What we have the right to demand is not a”balance” that abdicates responsibility for truth-telling– the stenography approach. Instead, we have a right to expect journalists to do as Packer counsels–keep their minds open to information that challenges their biases. 

As we have all seen in discussions that accompany this blog, that’s not easy. When people are convinced that their understandings are more accurate and trustworthy than the perceptions or reports of others, they will cherry-pick sources and evidence.

Objectivity is beyond them, so passion substitutes.


Balancing Act

Leave it to the British to accurately diagnose what is terribly wrong with the American media.

It’s the mindless elevation of “balance” over accuracy. Somewhere along the line, members of the American news media (I’m hesitant to call them journalists) decided that “he said, she said” was reporting. It isn’t. It’s stenography.

This emphasis on “balance” at the expense of accuracy and the old-style journalism of verification is abetted by the media’s genuine bias, which is neither conservative nor liberal  but rather a bias for conflict. If it bleeds, it leads.

So we get “balanced” coverage of things like climate change.  More than 99% of climate scientists agree that the earth is warming, but our intrepid media will find that one crank who insists otherwise, and give us a “balanced” story by quoting “both sides.” Left unreported is the fact that the science is overwhelmingly on one “side” and the “debate” is virtually non-existent.

Or we get political coverage that has been dubbed “false equivalence.” There’s a reason for that. Over the past couple of decades, the right wing has employed a brilliant strategy: labeling the media “liberal.” (Has a factual report cast you in an unfavorable light? Scream immediately about the liberal, “lame stream” media.)  In response, most traditional media outlets have been cowed into reporting a phony equivalence whenever possible, a “plague on both your houses” approach that often distorts the reality of a situation and even more often encourages lazy reporting. How much easier it is to quote a Republican and a Democrat and then go home–without ever bothering to tell the audience who is telling the truth.

No wonder so many people don’t trust the media. Very few are still trustworthy.


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  the 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?”  the 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.


Policy and Polarization

Numbers cruncher Nate Silver took a look at the recent New York Times poll of people who consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party movement, and noted that media habits were the most salient predictor of such support.

According to Silver, “Tea-partiers are disproportionately attached to, and perhaps influenced by, FOX News. And they are particularly enamored of Glenn Beck. Nationally, just 18 percent of people have a favorable opinion of Beck (the majority have no opinion whatsoever about him). But most tea-partiers do… 59 percent of those who do think highly of Beck consider themselves a part of the tea-party. This is, in fact, the single biggest differentiator of any of the items that the NYT asked about: not ideology, not any particular political belief, but whom they watch on television.”

It isn’t just Fox. Increasingly, the television programming you watch, the newspapers, magazines and blogs you read, and the other media you access have become predictors of the reality you inhabit.

Over the past eight years, I have team-taught a course with James Brown, Associate Dean of IUPUI’s Journalism School. The course is titled “Media and Public Affairs” and it enrolls both journalism and policy students. Its purpose is to explore the mutual dependence of the media and government.  When we first taught the course, it was a relatively straightforward exploration of the history of American journalism and freedom of the press: today, we aren’t even sure what “the media” is. And that’s a problem, not just for the classroom, but for the country.

In a large and diverse democracy, the ability of citizens to make informed decisions about public policy is critically dependent upon the quality, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. We are seeing dramatic changes in the ways in which Americans access that information. At a time when the relationship between government and media has become increasingly important, that relationship has become increasingly problematic.

The media’s role in American policymaking involves two supremely important functions, that of “watchdog” and that of information provider. The watchdog function is intended to keep public administrators honest; the information function allows the public to make reasoned judgments, not just about their government’s actions and decisions, but about the all-important context within which those actions are taken and decisions made.

Governments depend upon a properly functioning media in order to make sound policy; citizens require a properly functioning media to ensure that their own policy judgments are informed.

The ideal of journalism is objectivity, difficult as that often is to achieve. Every journalist cannot be Walter Cronkite, but we cannot function as citizens without genuinely impartial and trustworthy sources of information. When we substitute commentators for reporters, when supposedly reputable news sources act like stenographers—giving us “balance” (i.e. “he said, she said”) without fact-checking who’s telling the truth—we end up in a black and white world where we can choose the “facts” we prefer to believe.

And then we wonder why everyone is so angry.