News Literacy Lesson 4: Balance, Fairness
Media organizations often use words like “balance” and “fairness.” They want to say that they are reporting without showing favoritism or making judgments. Balance simply means giving equal time to both sides of an issue, or not giving one side more importance.
For example, let’s consider a report about abortion bills winding their way through U.S. legislatures. A balanced report will give equal time to both supporters of abortion and those opposed to the operation. However, journalists must verify the facts put forth by each side. It is not balance to allow both sides to make any statement supporting their case. This can perpetuate fake news and leaves the reader or viewer without solid information.
“Will you just shut up for a minute and let me finish? Pardon me, sir, you don’t get to tell me to shut up and national television.”
Shouting and arguing does not bring balance to an issue and it certainly isn’t journalism.
But journalists must be careful that seeking balance doesn’t lead to unfair reporting, or setting up an unfair moral equivalency or balance, between unequal sides in an argument.
Actually, objectivity means reporting the truth, it means getting everybody’s truth and reporting it, but never creating a false moral equivalence. Never saying all sides are equal because that’s not the truth, false. That’s a cop-out, it’s a lie.
Journalist Christiane Amanpour is talking about the Bosnian War, where she reported on attacks against Bosnian Muslims. Experts called it a kind of ethnic cleansing. To give equal weight to official denials of the violence she saw would have been wrong.
Fair reporting represents reality, not a simple “he said, she said.” False moral equivalency is a failure of journalists to carry out their duties.
A smart news consumer must ask: is this coverage fair to the evidence? And what exactly is evidence? In lesson 5 we will explain how to evaluate news coverage in order to answer these questions.
Words in this story
abortion – n. a medical procedure used to end a pregnancy and cause the death of the fetus
verify – v. to prove, show, find out, or state that (something) is true or correct
perpetuate – v. to cause (something that should be stopped, such as a mistaken idea or a bad situation) to continue
equivalency – n. a level of that is considered to be on the same level
Ethnic – adj. of or relating to races or large groups of people who have the same customs, religion, origin, etc.