There is an interesting column in the NY Times today that the norms of journalistic objectivity are being tested in this current election year. I’m not going to link the story because it gets us off-track in terms of where I wish to go in this column.
But reading the column reminded me of one of the most-read early Vanguard stories, “Commentary: When “Fair and Balanced” is Less Accurate,” from May 2007. While the examples cited in that article are very dated and time-specific, the main idea remains intriguing.
The basic idea is roughly the same in both columns – the journalistic norm of fairness and balance requires a somewhat neutral reading of political disputes. Both sides get their position laid out, get quoted, and the journalists typically allow the reader to then become referee to decide which side is right.
The problem you run into here is we assume that there are two sides to the story with the truth somewhere in between. But what happens if that is not the case – if one side is factually correct and the other side is factually wrong? What happens if one side simply lies or makes up their case?
As I wrote in 2007, this “demonstrates that fair and balanced is not necessarily more accurate. And that sometimes you need to be able to take sides to accurately report a story.”
I argued, “The moment you accept even the possibility that there may be validity to this point, you have to look at media such as blogs in an entirely different fashion because the assumption has always been that bias equals less accuracy, but perhaps the truth is that sometimes bias gives you more information than artificial attempts to maintain the journalistic ethos of fair and impartial reporting. Sometimes, we need to get to the truth and the only way to do that is to take sides.”
That was the emerging challenge back in 2007 when alternative news, be it blogs or other sites, started to challenge the mainstream media.
That appears to be an even bigger challenge today.
The need to establish baseline facts in political discourse is a challenge. For one thing, while there are times when the political claims are simply untrue (we can look at the past week for several very prominent examples, but, alas, that gets us off course). But, most of the time, statements and claims are shades of gray.
One example that came up was a claim that California had lost 9000 companies from 2008 to 2015. Taken in isolation it may be an accurate statement, but the reality is more nuanced.
As the LA Times reported in January, “California has spawned new businesses at one of the fastest rates in the nation over the last decade, and faster than the U.S. economy overall, the report found. The state is also a leader in job creation tied to those new businesses: In 2013, California added jobs from newly established businesses faster than all but four other states.”
Ferreting out the truth can be a difficult and cumbersome task in itself. In social science, we are taught to create models which explain the impact of cause (independent variable) on effect (dependent variable). We then use regression equations to see how strong the relationship is between the variables and how much of the variance a given model can explain.
But, of course, the model is only as good as the assumptions that underlie the model, and the omission of key variables or the complexity of the model can undermine its findings.
Journalists have attempted to maintain the appearance of neutrality by having fact checks. They take a given statement and then run a story fact checking it. These occur at times internally, and other times organizations like FactCheck or PolitiFact operate as ways to provide transparency and accountability for claims for politicians.
But even these attempts run amuck. Political analysts on both sides have poked holes in some of the claims from these fact-checking organizations, and sometimes the truth is much more nuanced than we would like it to be.
The bottom line is that, while it is a journalist’s responsibility to report what has happened as accurately as possible, journalists run into barriers when the people they are supposed to be reporting on know how to intentionally game the system.
Journalists have to adapt to the world because it does the public no good to run a fair and balanced story if the underlying claims are simply false.
—David M. Greenwald reporting