Saturday, July 19, 2008

Journalism, Fairness, and Balance

Several things that I've read recently discuss the current state of the news media and the problems with it. Media consolidation, giving control of the news to large corporations, is one problem. Another is an interesting discussion that journalists have been acting according to a particular idea of fairness that requires them to get quotes from people on different sides of an issue. It does SOUND fair, but there are problems with it. Lauri Lebo, in The Devil in Dover (see review below) on pages 95-97, has an excellent discussion of the topic, and I want to quote at length from it. She is discussing why the media don't give more coverage to the fact that there is no controversy among scientists that evolution is true:

"So why isn't the message getting through to the public? One of the problems is that few newspaper reporters posess backgrounds in science. Furthermore, the mainstream media's adherence to a notion of objectivity and "fair and balanced" journalism is frequently expolited, allowing advocacy organizations to portray an issue as controversial when it's not. Journalists, fearing ofending conservative and fundamentalist readers, have become timid at presenting information. Consequently, what passes for news gathering becomes what Science magazine's Donald Kennedy called the 'two-card Rolex problem'.
'There's a very small set of people who question the consensus', Kennedy said. 'And there are a great many thoughtful reporters in the media who believe that in order to produce a balanced story, you've got to pick one commentator from side A and one commentator from Side B.'
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in their book The Elements of Journalism,

Rather than high principles, [fairness and balance] are really techniques - devices - to help guide journalists in the development and verification of their accounts. They should never be pursued for their own sake or invoked as journalism's goal. Their value is in helping us get closer to more thorough verification and a reliable version of events.
Balance, for instance, can lead to distortion. If an overwhelming percentage of scientists, for example, believe that global warming is a scientific fact, or that some medical treatment is clearly the safest, it is a disservice to citizens and truthfulness to create the impression that scientific debate is equally split. Unfortunately, all too often journalistc balance is misconsrued to have this kind of almost mathematical meaning, as if a good story is one that has an equal number of quotes from two sides. As journalists know often there are more than two sides to a story. And sometimes balancing them equally is not a true reflection of reality."

Lebo, Lauri. The Devil in Dover. New York: New Press, 2008.

She got the Kovach and Rosenstiel quote from The Elements of Journalism, New York, Three Rivers Press, 2001.

On a related topic, Lebo on page 199-200, has this:

At the conclusion of the Scopes trial, H. L. Mencken wrote, "Even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them on other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected from the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge."

What a great summary of free speech.

1 comment:

eaglebirdie said...

The problem with modern journalism is not that journalists seek out alternative viewpoints that may be held by a slim majority, the problem lies in the fact that most modern journalist do so little to lay aside their own personal viewpoints regarding issues that they cover.