FAQ's for Lesson 4 - Fairness & Balance

faq_icon_noun_like.svg.pngFairness FAQs

Are all examples of unfairness caused by bias?

No. Many are caused by a lack of time or just plain sloppiness. Finding the right word or phrase to describe a person, an act, a movement or an idea is often very difficult, particularly because the pressure is on journalists to compress their descriptions into as few words as possible. This is why good news organizations spend a lot of time coming up with neutral words and expressions.

But many are caused by a lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others. For example, the term “illegal aliens” was widely used in the mainstream media for years until it was explained to journalists how offensive that term is to the people involved and how inaccurate it was in terms of explaining their status.

This is a key reason why racial, ethnic, religious and gender diversity in the staffing of news organization is so important. The more diverse viewpoints are represented, the more likely that a news organization will avoid unfair language.

Are there situations in journalism when non-neutral language is deemed acceptable?

Yes, when the journalist and his or her editors decide that it is necessary in order to be fair to the evidence.

For example, the New York Times called Donald Trump a liar after he admitted that Barack Obama was indeed born in the United States. Trump had spent the previous decade claiming to have evidence Obama was not born in the U.S. He then tried to blame Hillary Clinton for starting the rumor and tried to take credit for disproving it.

This should happen only in extreme, obvious circumstances.

Do fairness and balance ever overlap?

Yes. In fact, they overlap most of the time. Think of balance as a tool for creating fairness. In many stories, giving equal voice to the different sides is fair. But in some cases, balance is not fair to the evidence. Remember that the less that is known about what happened, the more important it is to hear from all sides. But once the facts are well-established, the need for balance in the pursuit of fairness is lessened.

Shouldn't balance always be sought when first engaging a story to avoid bias?

When first engaging a story it is not always clear who all the players are, but from the beginning a reporter should be trying to get as much information from as many points of view as possible. Sometimes this is called triangulation – what surveyors do in order to establish the distance between or relative position of two or more points.

How exactly is not giving equal coverage to a political candidate not biased?

During the Republican primaries there were more than 16 candidates. To be balanced, you would have to give equal coverage to them all, but that would mean that most people wouldn’t read or listen to any of it because it would take too much time. Journalists had to decide which candidates had the best chance of winning and focus on them.

Unfortunately, in many cases, such decisions are influenced by other factors. For example, conventional wisdom said that Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio would be very strong candidates, so they got a lot of coverage initially. That conventional wisdom – the combined views of many journalists who have been covering politics for a long time – also said that Bernie Sanders didn’t have a chance against Hillary Clinton and undoubtedly caused him to get less coverage than he “deserved.” By the way, the same thing almost happened to Obama in 2007-08.

News drivers play a role as well. Donald Trump was prominent, unusual, combative — conflict — and just about every other driver you can think of, which is why he got such a huge advantage in coverage, very little of which was serious or critical.

Should news stories without all sides be published at all? If news organizations weren't so quick to publish news, could they be more accurate?

The tension between speed and accuracy has been around as long as journalism has because the public may say that they want accuracy, but they always demand speed: They want to know NOW. One way around this is to be transparent and run the story without all sides but acknowledge that you are doing so and explain why that was necessary.

Why does the media substitute balance and fairness? Do journalists think that unequal arguments should automatically be given equal attention?

Sometimes balance is a reflexive thing — journalists are trained not to take sides and grow accustomed to it, and so they give equal weight to all stakeholders in a debate. Sometimes false equivalence is the result of laziness — it’s easier to give everyone a say and then go home. Another reason is that conflict is a news driver, an attribute of a story that makes it newsworthy. Conflict creates drama and attention-grabbing stories, so at times we see news outlets highlighting debate even when there is none. The “vaccine controversy” that is not really a controversy is a good example of this.

How can time be a factor in whether a TV news report is fair and/or balanced?

If you run out of time, then you might not be able to interview the other side or sides in a story. For example, in a TV news story about a fire at a restaurant at 5 AM that a fire marshal said he thought was suspicious, it is likely the reporter couldn’t get in touch with the owners or managers. That would be OK, if the reporter is transparent — honest — with the viewer and says that the owner could not be reached for comment.

As a news consumer, you should be able to tell by seeing not only how many sources the story has but also how authoritative and informed they are. It can be hard to find a source who is authoritative on a specific issue.

We’d like more examples of unfair balance.

Another term for unfair balance is false equivalence. A classic example is how you handle people who deny that six-million Jews were exterminated by the German government in World War II. There is overwhelming evidence, much of it provided by the Germans who kept meticulous records of the Holocaust. Should a Holocaust denier be given equal time?

In an act of terrorism such as a 9/11, do you really need equal representation when writing an article?

You did before all of the facts were in. The less evidence you have, the more balance you need. For example, many people assumed that the truck bomb that destroyed the Oklahoma City Federal Building killing 168 people was the work of a Muslim extremist. Instead, a white Christian nationalist, Timothy McVeigh, was the terrorist.