When media aims for balance, some views and facts get lost
All opinions and points of view aren't equal when one digs into the facts.
WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago in this space I asked you for your thoughts on the news media – what you don't like and don't understand about how reporters and news outlets go about their work. A few dozen responses later, it's safe to simply say there's a lot.
But if, as reporters always defensively say, the media are not a monolith, that is even more true of media users. Some of you turn to and trust the biggest media and some of you dislike them. Some of you think blogs are more honest news sources and some of you are leery of them – others don't use them at all and don't understand the fuss over them. Some happily sample a large number of outlets on the Web and others purposely restrict their choices.
But several of you raised the same point of concern: The media need to do a better job with "balance" in the news. That's not surprising considering the nation's current political divide that has led to considerable talk of bias in the news.
Again though, readers came at this issue from different vantage points. Some of you (and this came from conservatives and liberals) said that the stories are often too one-sided. Others felt that the media was too worried about giving "both sides of the story" at the expense of the truth and that this itself represented a form of bias. Still others said the media did a fine job of giving two sides of stories, but that there are often many more sides than that to give and those points of view are neglected.
Who's right? Well, that depends.
Balance is one of those issues that seems simple on the surface, but gets more complicated as you look at it more deeply. As a concept, it is often trumpeted by outlets that profess to be objective – and not just FOX News with its "Fair and Balanced" tagline, but any number of other publications and programs that promise "both sides" in their coverage.
The problem, of course, is that balance doesn't necessarily lead to getting the story right. Consider: If a group of Yankee fans and a group of Red Sox fans watch the two teams battle, they will probably have different views on what exactly happened during the game and why. Was an 8-0 final score the result of great hitting or bad pitching or both?
Asking a guy in pinstripes and a gal with a "B" on her hat may provide a "balanced" view, but it doesn't really answer the question. The answer, if it can be found, lies somewhere in the statistics and a careful viewing of the game. Was the pitcher hitting his spots? What were the at-bats like? It involves effort.
So it is with any number of stories. Just because there are differences of opinion doesn't mean both sides are equally correct. When reporters don't make the effort to sort through the evidence and simply fall back on "this side says this, and that side says that," they are being lazy.
That doesn't, however, mean giving "both sides" of an issue is inherently lazy.
With some issues the answers are simply unknowable – this is particularly true when a person proposes something and says it will have a specific impact, such as a policy proposal – and asking supporters and opponents what they think is useful. The actual impact of a proposal at a specific moment in time is unknowable. It hasn't happened yet.
Or consider scientific debates where the academic community is legitimately split. Giving both sides is essential.
But it isn't giving one side or giving both sides that has been journalism's biggest "balance" shortcoming in recent years. It is refusing to recognize that there are usually more complicated views on most issues. There simply aren't many issues that boil down to a nice, neat Hegelian dialectic where the possible answers are two clearly delineated opposites.
In searching for an easy way to explain the news in a limited space, journalists too often reduce issues to their most rudimentary forms.
This is true on debates ranging from gay marriage (a for-or-against argument with little talk of what rights gays should have) to when troops in Iraq should come home (stay or "cut and run" even though both sides are talking about when reductions should occur) and everything in between. The extreme points of view on those issues may be actual positions, but so are the many nuanced views that live between them and get less coverage.
In other words, despite its prominent place in many media debates, "balance," as it is usually understood, is often not particularly useful in journalism. All opinions and points of view aren't equal when one digs into the facts and "both sides" leaves a lot of sides out.
• Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail Dante Chinni at: Dante Chinni.