Balance: A Crisis of Information and Democracy
We're pleased to announce the winners of The Nation's sixth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Bryce Wilson Stucki of Virginia Tech University and Hannah Moon of Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, New York. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. -- The Editors
The most serious and urgent problem facing my generation is the degeneration of the concept of "objective" news. This process of creeping decay is in large part due to the ascendance of the ideal of "balance" over that of objectivity as the accepted benchmark for assessing credibility in reporting.
Facing, as we do, a plethora of complex environmental, economic and social problems, it may seem counterintuitive, even trivial, to focus on a narrow question of journalistic mechanics. The way information is gathered and disseminated, however, is of profound importance. Command of reliable information is the only foundation on which we can build consensus to find solutions.
I have become convinced that the rise of the journalistic principle demanding "balance" has resulted in a crisis in our society: a crisis of truth. Rather than simply reporting facts, one must now supply a forum for the airing of views from all sides. In the service of maintaining what passes as "balance," journalists strip news of both truth and controversy. This practice effectively deprives citizens of crucial information, with problems and events reduced to a muddle of unfiltered opinion. We must demand and create a better journalism, one which elevates objective fact over "balance," or we will continue to lack the clarity required to function as a true democracy.
"Balance" in journalism, according to media scholar Robert Entman, "requires that reporters present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention." It has gradually replaced objective, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "uninfluenced by emotion, surmise, or personal prejudice," as the standard measure for reporting. The decision in 1996 of the Society of Professional Journalists to eliminate "objective" from its code of ethics is emblematic of this shift. Scholarly articles appearing in publications such as Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly have increasingly focused on "balance" as a measure of quality in analyzing journalism. Celia Friend, author of Online Journalism Ethics has gone so far as to conclude that a commitment to "balance" is a necessary attribute of an ethical journalist.
News delivered in this manner however, is prone to inaccuracy. "Balance" may be used as cover for an imperative to avoid conflict or lack of intellectual rigor. Rather than digging for facts, journalists may simply present opinions of involved parties, without analysis. Failure to investigate or examine the relative credentials and underlying factual support for each side in a given controversy can significantly warp "truth" as received by the public. Distortion can be created simply by applying the principle of giving both sides roughly equal space.
An example of the operation of this distorting process is found in popular media coverage of climate change. A 2009 University of Illinois survey concluded that 97% of climatologists polled agreed that man-made production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses causes climate change, yet 44% of Americans indicated that they believed there was considerable disagreement among scientists on this point, according to a 2010 Pew Poll.
This disconnect directly resulted from media adherence to a "balanced" approach. The long history of this particular distortion was deconstructed by the organization FAIR, which found that over a decade 53% of articles in papers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal gave equal attention to those arguing for and against man-created climate change. This "balanced" presentation led the public to believe that knowledgeable scientists were evenly spilt on the issue, where in fact little disagreement existed.
In addition to spreading misinformation, "balanced" media coverage encourages beliefs among young people that make it difficult to compromise, build consensus and tackle urgent problems. Purveying opinions rather than presenting useful information, media coverage leads many to be convinced that all "sides" are equally valid, that everything is a matter of opinion. Anyone who expresses a strong opinion about an issue, whatever their underlying expertise or information is inherently biased and untrustworthy. These distortions breed unhealthy passivity. After all, why should young people take action for a cause if they aren't convinced a cause exists? If truth is endlessly malleable, how can one fix on a goal or solution?
There is an alternative: journalism neither negligently "balanced" nor riddled with opinionated distortion. We can establish standards that promote objective truth, even where this is controversial or difficult. Where there is debate, journalism will elucidate it. Where true division and debate does not exist, it will not be manufactured through slavish commitment to "balance."
Journalism must evolve to bring the sometimes one-sided truth to the public, spurring us to take action. New technologies have provided unprecedented opportunities for creation and dissemination of information. Without the operation of truthful, discerning journalism however, we will continue to be misinformed and passive in the face of our society's defining problems.