Are reporters and editors obligated to present both sides in any controversial news story?
You hear that question a lot these days. Increasing political polarization is manifesting itself in demands by those on the left and right that articles or broadcasts about touchy issues, like abortion, gun laws, voter suppression and the like, always present “both sides.” Any omission of one side’s argument is prima facie evidence of bias.
Back in the old days — the 19th Century old days — offering balanced accounts was unheard of, and for good reason. Newspapers were seldom more than opinion broadsides, and objective reporting was nonexistent. In the aftermath of World War I, reform-minded editors adopted a standard of fairness and balance in reporting (along with accuracy, of course), and this standard held sway through most of the 2oth Century.
These days, media critics on both the left and right claim a virtual right to having their point of view receive equal treatment in any article. The media, always sensitive to charges of bias, is responding by writing “he said, she said” narratives that increasingly obscure the news in a cascade of charges and counter-charges. The pressure is especially acute in the newsrooms of national newspapers like the Times and the Washington Post (the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, where I once worked, has all but given up objectivity). Any article about, say, the influence of Super PACs in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision are so blandly written, they actually distort the real news, which is, of course, how money (large quantities of money) are affecting elections. Reporters can’t or won’t take a side in this highly controversial aspect of politics; the result is that Super PACs are often portrayed as civic-minded business benevolent assocations, no more influential than, say, your local Elks Lodge.
The sense of over-objectivity outrages many, who express their anger in blogs and posted comments. But there doesn’t appear to be a way around the problem. Urging supposedly unbiased newspapers to drop their objectivity would most likely exacerbate the already coarsened state of political and social discourse. We probably don’t need, in other words, more gasoline on the flames. But remaining safely on the altar of “balance,” poses its own risks if it drives away partisan readers (and subscribers) to bloggers and other content generators who wear their opinions on their sleeves. The advent of social media makes objectivity in reporting even more difficult; while editors struggle to fairly present both sides, consumer-generated content online has no such restriction. In fact, a new cottage industry has sprung up, most visibly in the realm of political communications, specializing in creating canned counter-arguments intended not so much to balance the reporting, but to undermine or eviscerate the premise or the article.
By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m written this blog with the sense of balance and fairness that I learned in news writing 101. I’m actually trying to present, fairly, all points of view.
Thirty years ago, the sentiments expressed here would have been welcomed by my editors and also, I suspect, most readers, for its tone of balanced objectivity. Not anymore. If I want to attract new readers and raise my profile, I guess I’d better start taking sides.