Unfairness and balance

21 Aug

Partiality can be dangerous. Impartiality can be too. Hot on the heels of his last post on “innocence” in the American media, Professor Rosen has developed his theme, seizing on a recent example of excessively balanced reporting, or what he calls “he said, she said” journalism.

The story – about a recently published book on Reagan – appeared in the New York Times, and dealt with allegations of plagiarism made against the author by one of Reagan’s biographers. The Times carefully reported the claims, gave ample space to the author to rebut them, and left it there, without drawing any conclusions. The reader was left to judge the prosecution and defence cases. Unfortunately, as Rosen points out, that isn’t good enough this time:

The problem here is that the Times had what it needed to make a call. “Perlstein plagiarized Shirley” was a checkable claim. Shirley’s accusations were online. Perlstein’s source notes were online. The Times knows what plagiarism is. Its writers and editors have to guard against it every day. Under these conditions, “leaving it there” amounts to malpractice …

In fact, the NYT’s public editor was moved to intervene and came down firmly against the paper, saying the article “amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader”.

As Rosen observes, “he said, she said” is not always the fairest way. “Instead of favoring one side, it pushes the account toward a phony midpoint. [It’s] still distortion, but it looks more innocent.”

So perhaps “warrior journalism” of the best kind – partisan, but ethical and conscientious – as advocated by this blog last time is a better model? But, as the always-perceptive Picky wrote in the comments to that post, there are serious potential problems here too, even if every partisan newspaper were to hold itself to the highest standards of fairness.

In that world,  I could (sufficiently resourced) find a story a day about some cock-up or catastrophe somewhere in the NHS, all of them true, and print them. The unstated unproven concomitant (the lie) would be that the NHS, reeling from the government’s cuts, is about to collapse. Or I could by examining the bureaucratic tomfoolery of the European Union find a story a day, all of them true, about the latest bit of ineptitude. The unstated unproven concomitant (the lie) would be that we are ruled by a bunch of Napoleonic idiots in Brussels out to destroy Tunbridge Wells.

Balance, as Rosen makes clear, is not always enough; but, as Picky says, fairness isn’t always enough either. A series of correct and ethically impeccable stories about NHS disasters are fair individually, but not collectively if there is never a story about NHS success or improvement.

British journalism suffers from its own plurality: to grasp the British news agenda, you would need to buy every paper every day. But it is also blessed with the moderating influence of its studiously impartial TV channels. And perhaps the “he said, she said” method is at its best in this environment, with BBC news perched on top of a warring press and synthesising a balance of views. (Even if, as I contend, that forces it to act willy-nilly as an umpire, ruling some subjects in and others out of a national debate that even it does not have the resources to cover in full.)

Britain’s partisan press model is a dangerous one, for sure: it requires not just active regulation at source but also a series of downstream media organisations to act as filters. But maybe it is more robust, and truer to the spirit of the profession, than a system in which conclusions are not drawn even when they could be. After all, not many people go into journalism to be cautious.

2 Responses to “Unfairness and balance”

  1. Jeff August 21, 2014 at 8:53 pm #

    I remember the point, probably in my early teens, when I realised it was possible to comprehend what was going on in the country (world?) because actually the newspapers all wrote about the same things – so one didn’t (shouldn’t?) need to read all of them! I suppose before that I had thought they all had different news, which is not unreasonable if you think that selecting a book, comic or magazine one would expect it to be substantially different from others alongside.

    • edlatham August 21, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

      To be fair, I think the Daily Star’s coverage of Big Brother is far more comprehensive than ours! And also, for example, you wouldn’t have read much about phone hacking, except in the Guardian, for a couple of years. But yes, there is a good debate about the perils of ‘news consensus’ to be had. Maybe it’s not that they cover different things, but that they cover the same things from completely opposed points of view.

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