Balanced reporting

Presenting balanced reporting has been one of the most important jobs of journalists for hundreds of years. While some stories are relatively straightforward (“Car hits pedestrian”), even the most cut-and-dried event can become subject to bias and interpretation by the reporter, whether intentional or not. For example, “Car hits pedestrian” can be portrayed as “Careless driver careens into innocent jogger” or “Careless runner strays into traffic.” Which version is correct? Neither? Both?

balancedIn today’s media climate, aggressive media newcomers pride themselves on covering the stories the “mainstream media” won’t cover, or at least presenting what they believe to be an alternative, and more balanced, viewpoint. Traditional media powerhouses like CNN, the Washington Post and National Public Radio have all been accused of bias in their reporting often enough that many media outlets feel obligated to present an opposing viewpoint even on non-controversial matters just to appear balanced. For example:

  • Even though no scientific organization of national or international standing has an official dissenting opinion on the reality of climate change or man’s role in it, news media still typically include a dissenting voice when airing a news story related to climate change.
  • While comprehensive studies of vaccination show that vaccines do not cause autism and have few and rare side effects, the media feel compelled to include an anti-vaccination crusader’s viewpoint whenever vaccines are discussed.

One venerable and prominent news organization, the BBC, has had enough of being “balanced.” The BBC Trust, the BBC’s governing body, has been training its employees not to give “undue attention to marginal opinion” when the issue at hand is non-controversial.

“Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views,” said a recent report from the Trust and must take into account the prominence of the views.

The BBC has had enough of being “balanced.”

Of course, one can find someone that believes almost anything:

  • A 2012 National Geographic poll showed that 36 percent of Americans believe in UFOs, a number far higher than the percentage of scientists who don’t believe in climate change, or parents that believe vaccines cause autism.
  • A 2012 Angus Reid poll showed that 29 percent of Americans believed that Bigfoot is either “definitely” or “probably” real.
  • Polls taken in the 2000s showed that about 10 percent of Americans believe Elvis is alive.

A scan of the news won’t likely turn up stories on UFOs, Bigfoot or Elvis, even though millions of Americans would not be surprised to see the King and a sasquatch land in a flying saucer in their backyards.

It’s clear that the media have a difficult line to walk when it comes to being balanced, especially when traditional media revenues are down and the line between editorial and advertising blurs more every day. Fringe viewpoints draw eyeballs, and people prefer to consume media that reinforces their worldview rather than media that present facts that may contradict that view. It’s unclear if the traditional media Americans have trusted for decades will adopt the BBC’s tough new standard, or if the pressure to include alternative viewpoints, no matter how far out on the bell curve they lie, will win out.

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