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Bias, balance and the problems of media objectivity?

By Neil Levy - posted Thursday, 24 June 2004


Objectivity is hard to achieve. One reason this is so is that it is difficult to detect, both in oneself and in others. A well-known study of people's perception of bias divided subjects into two groups, on the basis of their professed political allegiances, and then showed them news footage and documentaries upon which they had strong views. Members of both groups perceived the same footage as biased against their position: conservatives believing it to exhibit a left-leaning bias and those on the left seeing it as slanted to the right. Detecting bias in oneself is, if anything, even harder. It is, perhaps, one of those irregular verbs: I am objective, you are partial, they are prejudiced.

Postmodernists often claim, rightly, that we all see things from our own standpoint, and that therefore the complete elimination of bias is impossible. Perhaps it is undesirable, as well as impossible: we need a sense of what matters and why if we are to begin to make sense of the political and social landscape. It is one thing, however, to say that bias is ineliminable, and quite another to assert that there is no difference between attempts to report events which are fair to conflicting points of view, and naked propaganda. That bias is ineliminable does not entail that it cannot be minimised, nor that certain people do not have a duty to seek to minimise it in themselves.

One group of professionals who are usually and rightly taken to have the duty to minimise the impact of their political leanings on their work is journalists. When they are reporting the news - that is, informing us of the day's events, rather than editorialising - journalists ought to refrain, so far as possible, from allowing their personal opinions to influence what they say and how they say it. Some do a remarkably good job: I have sometimes been surprised to learn that a journalist whose reports I have heard or read many times, has strong political leanings to the right or to the left. Some are less good at it, and some news services, more or less openly, discourage objectivity. Fox News, with its cynical slogan "We report, you decide" is the paradigm of political propaganda masquerading as objectivity.

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Right now I am not concerned with criticising or praising the performance of individual journalists, or with the practices of this or that news service. Instead, I am concerned with criticising one way in which journalists, as a profession, strive for objectivity, at least in Australia. Journalists often pursue objectivity by means of "balance". To be balanced, in this context, means to give equal time to both or all sides of a contentious issue. This is often a very good idea. All too often, however, the indiscriminate pursuit of balance leads not to objectivity, but to outright distortion of the truth.

One way this occurs is in political reporting. Journalists routinely seek rebuttals of claims made by politicians on all sides. When this is done by rote, as it often is, it adds nothing to the reporting. Many stories on radio and TV quote the leader of the opposition (for instance) claiming that the government's policy on X is bad, and then add "but the Prime Minister refutes the claim". Of course, the Prime Minister has not refuted the claim, in the great majority of cases; he has merely denied it. In any case, reporting the denial adds nothing whatsoever to the story. He would say that, wouldn't he?

Far more serious, however, is the abuse of balance that occurs when journalists seek rebuttals of claims outside their area of expertise. If you relied upon the popular media for your information, you would think that there is a lively debate among scientists as to whether global warming is real, caused by human beings or a serious threat. In fact, there is no such debate: the overwhelming majority of reputable authorities think that global warming is a real cause for great alarm. But - perhaps because well-funded institutes have ensured that supposed experts are always easily available - every time such claims are made by scientists, journalists seek out people to deny them. It would be more balanced to give time to experts with relevant qualifications in proportion to their weight within their fields - so that perhaps one percent of coverage of the greenhouse effect would be devoted to allowing sceptics their say.

As it is, journalists all too often give time to rival views in proportion to their funding and media savvy, not their intellectual respectability. As a result, some voices - such as those of global warming sceptics - are given far too much prominence, whereas others are given far too little. Once again, if you rely upon the popular media for your knowledge of scientific developments, you would think that evolutionary biologists all agree that there are genes for psychological traits - aggression, monogamy, violence, or whatever it may be. In fact, not only is there nothing even approaching a consensus on such claims, many scientists do not even think they are meaningful. But because sceptics are less well-funded, less media savvy, or perhaps simply less interesting (who wants to read the headline: "Gene for Homosexuality Nowhere to be Found"), the debate goes unreported.

To the extent to which, in the pursuit of balance, journalists give space and time totally out of proportion to the extent to which views are taken seriously by those with relevant expertise, the truth is distorted. To the extent to which the pursuit of balance gives easy access to the media to those with money to buy smooth and credible-sounding spokespeople, it gives extra political clout to those who, as a result of their wealth, already possess a disproportionate amount. Balance may be a goal worth pursuing. But it must be pursued carefully and knowledgeably, lest it lead to less, rather than more, objectivity.

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About the Author

Dr Neil Levy is a Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Special Research Centre For Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. The Centre is a member of National Forum.

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