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 This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation.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.