Commentary: Weighing Fairness and Balance Against Accuracy and Truth

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Bonner-commonwealthA few weeks ago, we sparked a bit of controversy when we pondered the duty of a newspaper to publish demonstrably false information in the name of balance.  Unfortunately, the discussion that followed from it missed a critical point, which was that the argumemt was not meant to be about people’s opinions, but rather about information that had been proved to be false at the time of publication.

This is not a new question, we first pondered this back in May of 2007 with a commentary called, “When ‘Fair and Balanced’ is Less Accurate.”

Last week at the the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Phil Bronstein, who currently heads up the Center for Investigative Reporting, interviewed Raymond Bonner. Mr. Bonner is the author of a  book about Edward Lee Elmore, a semiliterate, mentally-retarded black man who spent 30 years in prison for a crime he had not committed, and in order to get out of prison had to take an Alford plea, admitting to a crime he had not committed in order to gain his release.

During the course of this interview, Mr. Bonner, who had spent years writing for the New York Times as a foreign correspondent, notably in El Salvador in the 1980s covering that war, spoke about this issue.

“Journalistically,” he said, “when I was writing about the death penalty for the New York Times, and I’m sure when you [Mr. Bronstein] were editor in San Francisco and you wrote about death penalty cases, somebody on death row, whatever, you had to interview the victim’s family or friends and get the quote from them saying this guy should be put to death.  He’s guilty, etc., etc.”

“I used to ask myself, journalistic question for you as an editor,” he said, “If we’d been writing in 1860s about slavery, would we have required if we were writing about slavery was wrong, would we have required somebody [to] get a quote and say slavery is right, we should keep it up?  I think that’s how we’ll look back on the death penalty fifty years from now.”

Phil Bronstein responded, “People have criticized this sort of false proportion, this notion that you have to give equal weight to each side.  The public doesn’t buy it and why do journalists still do it?”

Raymond Bonner responded, noting that stories have shrunk in length, and then asked, “Why do you have to put in when Obama gives a speech, or even Romney, and you put in some canned quote from the other side?  Whatever, it’s canned, you don’t even have to go to them; you can write it yourself.”

That may be changing, however.  Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) has disavowed the brand of journalism that, instead of seeking the truth, tells competing sides of a story.

Jay Rosen is a journalism scholar and critic, and he writes, “NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of ‘he said, she said’ journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being ‘fair to the truth,’ which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.”

NPR has now put out a new ethics handbook which lays out “the standards” of their journalism.

With respect to fairness, they write, “In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.”

They continue: “At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.”

Mr. Rosen adds, “There was nothing like that in the old Code of Ethics and Practices, which dates from 2003. So why the change?”

According to Mr. Thompson, “In the brief section on fairness in the previous code, the focus was on how we treat those we cover. That focus hasn’t really changed. Most of the guidance in the section on fairness dwells on how to do right by them – representing their words faithfully, giving them time to respond to criticism, following through on promises of anonymity, etc. It’s vital to treat these stakeholders fairly because it’s difficult to do thorough, accurate reporting when one side of an issue doesn’t trust you enough to cooperate with your reporting.”

He adds, “But it’s important to remember that the public is our primary stakeholder, and we wanted to emphasize that. It’s critical that we earn and preserve the trust of our sources and subjects of coverage, but it’s always most vital to tell the public what we know to be true. We’re striving to give the public the strongest perspectives on the various sides of a debate.”

There is nothing more frustrating than to read a report where the reporter got it wrong because they were afraid to report what really happened and instead relied on a false balance.

The NPR standard is moving toward where we want journalism and the media to be.  And it is where the Vanguard ultimately wants to be as well.

I think comments made by a former newspaper hand, hired by NPR to launch a local news blog in Seattle, set the stage for the next phase.

He writes, “I think the new guidelines are better. But I wonder if they provide enough clarity for some of what I see as inherent tension points that arise from new media styles of reporting.”

He adds, “It sounds reasonable enough to say everyone should seek to remain “impartial.” But this is more an aspirational target than anything an honest individual will ever claim to achieve. As I’ve said many times, only journalists believe journalists are unbiased. Our job is to do our best to be fair, which is what I think the new NPR guidelines are trying to achieve.”

However, he also notes, “But it’s much harder to always strike the right balance in a fast-moving medium like a blog. More importantly, we are told to have ‘voice,’ to demonstrate ‘expertise’ and ‘engage’ with the community you report on, in order to succeed as a blogger.”

In my nearly six years of doing this, my style has evolved, as has the goal and mission of the Vanguard.  It is probably well past time to lay principles down for how the Vanguard should be reporting and engaging in the local community.

In the coming weeks and months, hopefully we will be able to provide greater clarity to our own goals and missions as we move forward.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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27 thoughts on “Commentary: Weighing Fairness and Balance Against Accuracy and Truth”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]NPR has now put out a new ethics handbook which lays out “the standards” of their journalism. With respect to fairness, they write, “In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.”[/quote]

    But who is deciding on what is the “strongest” argument? That is a purely subjective judgment call, that brings into play all sorts of bias…

    [quote]He adds, “It sounds reasonable enough to say everyone should seek to remain “impartial.” But this is more an aspirational target than anything an honest individual will ever claim to achieve. As I’ve said many times, only journalists believe journalists are unbiased. Our job is to do our best to be fair, which is what I think the new NPR guidelines are trying to achieve.”[/quote]

    In other words, let’s not bother to even try to be impartial? This says it all.

    [quote]In my nearly six years of doing this, my style has evolved, as has the goal and mission of the Vanguard. It is probably well past time to lay principles down for how the Vanguard should be reporting and engaging in the local community.[/quote]

    Are you going to ask your readers what they think those principles should be? Just curious…

  2. David M. Greenwald


    But who is deciding on what is the “strongest” argument? That is a purely subjective judgment call, that brings into play all sorts of bias..”

    Because everything is objective now?

  3. JustSaying

    Good for you, David, for pausing to look at the [i]Vanguard[/i]’s evolving standards (style?) of reporting.

    Of course a “false balance” serves no one, especially when it results in a lie being further advanced. “A sez the earth is round. However, B sez the earth is a cube.”

    This approach is almost as unhelpful as reporting, “The earth is a cube.”

    The [i]Vanguard[/i] is not impartial, and no one expects it to be impartial. Most of want and expect NPR to be impartial. What’s critical for the [i]Vanguard[/i], NPR and every other reporting venue that wants us to trust them is to always, always be accurate and complete.

    It is a fairly easy call to determine when reporting broadcasters, publications or blogs fall short of this standard. That drops the work into that of the columnist. There’s nothing wrong with serving up columnist gruel as long it’s correctly identified as opinion, admitting there’s just enough selected fact to serve the writer’s purpose.

    There are a least two categories for those who’ve “fallen” into the columnist category, the ones that want to support their opinions with lots of facts (Rich Rifken is an example) and the ones who support their opinions with lots of opinions (Charles Krauthammer is an example). Both types serve purposes, and don’t pretend to be something they’re not.

    I hope the [i]Vanguard[/i]–during this time of reflection–looks at its biggest shortcomings in providing accurate and complete reporting.

    First, in [u]assuming[/u] too much, you get to wrong conclusions. Second, in publishing before you’ve done an adequate reporting job, you get to unsupported conclusions. Third, by not getting information from certain sources, you close your eyes to the possibility of something different than your preconceived notion allows.

    The article suggests this is an editorial question, but I’d say it’s really a reporting question. Ira Glass got suckered into a phony Mike Daisey conclusion by [u]inadequate reporting[/u], not by misdirected or inadequate editorial “balance” standards.

    If NPR and the [i]Vanguard[/i] concentrate on accurate, complete reporting, both will be served well.

  4. medwoman

    “It is probably well past time to lay principles down for how the Vanguard should be reporting and engaging in the local community.”

    I would very much appreciate an ongoing discussion, preferably free of sniping, about what principles of reporting are valued, both from your side as a journalist, and from the varied points of view of your readers. Perhaps the Bulletin Board would be an appropriate place for such an ongoing discussion.

  5. wdf1

    There’s an interesting edition this week of the NPR-connected show (distributed by Public Radio International), “This American Life”. A few weeks ago, This American Life broadcast an interesting piece that gave seemingly first person accounts of factory-working conditions at Foxconn (which builds Apple products) in China. Well, a number of those first-person accounts, in fact, did not happen, it turns out.

    This show touches some philosophical issues about what is journalism and what is entertainment.

    This American Life: Retraction ([url]http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction[/url])
    [quote]“We’ve discovered that one of our most popular episodes contained numerous fabrications. This week, we detail the errors in Mike Daisey’s story about visiting Foxconn, which makes iPads and other products for Apple in China. Marketplace’s China correspondent Rob Schmitz discovered the fabrications.”[/quote]

  6. medwoman

    Elaine

    “In other words, let’s not bother to even try to be impartial? This says it all. “

    I respectfully disagree that ” this says it all”. I feel that there are times when the evidence from each side is close in weight, and in these instances impartiality is probably the best standard.
    However, there are other instances in which the evidence is so overwhelmingly weighted to one side as to make “impartial” reporting a travesty.

    I will give a recent example from my field which arose during the Republican nominating process.
    The safety of the HPV vaccine which is designed to lessen the risk of cervical cancer is well established within the medical community. The national associations and boards of all the major relevant specialties of Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Ob/Gyn, Family Practice, and Infectious Disease are in agreement that this is a potentially lifesaving and statistically safe immunization. These opinions are based on years and years of peer reviewed articles and clinical experience with the vaccine. Then, a nationally prominent politician, Michele Bachmann, states publicly that, based on a conversation with a single mother who said that her daughter had been diagnosed as being retarded after receiving the vaccination,
    that this vaccine was dangerous.
    To me, this is a clear cut example of an instance in which any attempt at “impartiality” would have in itself been the height of irresponsibility and could be directly responsible for placing women’s lives at risk by allowing girls mothers to believe that the “evidence” was equal on the two sides
    And thus not immunize their children out of completely unsupported fear.

  7. medwoman

    ” Because everything is objective now?”

    No, but to pretend that nothing is objective is equally egregious as is pretending that everything is.
    Your comment completely ignores that there is a wide spectrum of what is well demonstrated and what is not, and that part of a journalists legitimate role is to help us discern the difference.

  8. E Roberts Musser

    To medwoman: Your example of the HPV vaccine is inapposite. If the reporter is truly impartial, a “fair” article on the subject would site all the peer reviewed evidence, then briefly mention Bachmann’s statement as unsubstantiated opinion, then let the reader decide. Where the impartiality comes in is to at least note Bachman’s opinion (as that of a highly public figure w a differing view), and label it as strictly her opinion. Or at the very least, mention possible side effects. But to not state a differing view at all misses a critical point – there are side effects to these vaccines, which tend to scare people like Bachman into over-reacting and not getting her children innoculated so that it causes a greater health risk. But not to acknowledge side effects at all is wrong and very partial reporting IMO.

    A specific example of this is with the whooping cough vaccine. A news report on television came out many years ago, deciding to be very one-sided and report only the side effects of the whooping cough vaccine. Because of it, many parents grew concerned and hesitated to immunize their children. I talked it over w my doctor, who advised me the dangers of whooping cough were far greater than the dangers of any side effects, while negligible did exist. That decided for me, and I chose to get my kids innoculated from whooping cough.

    The report was too one-sided, and should have shown BOTH sides of the picture and the relative dangers – the risks of complications from whooping cough versus the dangers of an adverse reaction – which would have ended up impartial tho one-sided on the issue bc the statistics backed up the need to be one-sided. (Being one-sided does not necessarily mean being partial.) I assume in the HPV situation, you are NOT advocating that in the name of the efficacy of the HPV vaccine, the risks involved should NOT be mentioned?

  9. E Roberts Musser

    But think about it – the reporter in this case ‘decided’ on a particular slant – whooping cough vaccine has dangerous side effects – and ran with it. Very subjective reporting, leaving out the statistics part of it…

  10. E Roberts Musser

    To dmg: You didn’t answer my very important question –
    [quote]Are you going to ask your readers what they think those principles should be? Just curious…[/quote]

    Some have given their opinions, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily want them…

    This is YOUR blog, but I would be interested to know if you would like to hear from your readers on this issue?

  11. medwoman

    Elaine

    ” I assume in the HPV situation, you are NOT advocating that in the name of the efficacy of the HPV vaccine, the risks involved should NOT be mentioned?”

    I am fairly sure that you know that is not what I am advocating since on multiple previous posts, I believe that what I have made clear that what I advocate is a full discussion of the pros and cons of any medical choice, and where that full discussion belongs is between the patient and doctor without the terms of the discussion being dictated by any third party, be it an insurer, or a church, or the government.

  12. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]I would love to hear from my readers on this.[/quote]

    Great! I did not want to give an opinion on this issue unless invited. Here goes…

    In general, I highly applaud the Vanguard for bringing important issues into the light of day that would never be covered elsewhere. Because of the nature of blogging, it makes for very lively exchanges, which has been good for the community. I also recognize that the author of the Vanguard has only limited time to do investigative reporting, and is sometimes spread too thin. That is an inherent limitation of this type of blog, I believe, that readers need to accept – there may be severe restrictions on the author’s ability to research issues. And as a result, a lot of the articles may be replete with opinion rather than fact. That is perfectly fine.

    Here is where I think the Vanguard could improve:
    1. Make clear what is fact and what is opinion. Sometimes the articles do that, by laying out facts, then label the subsequent section as opinion. This should be done for all articles if possible. It is a good working format.
    2. Avoid “sandbagging” readers with facts not in evidence; if facts come to light later, introduce them kindly/gently, without faulting readers for their erroneous conclusions based on incomplete information.
    3. Avoid getting personal when reader’s disagree with the Vanguard’s viewpoint.
    4. At times I think the moderator should step in a bit more often when personal attacks between commenters occur. I realize the moderator cannot monitor the blog 24-7, but even pulling comments after publication is a good thing/helpful.
    5. Try to avoid overbroad generalizations.
    6. Try to avoid injecting politics into nonpolitical issues, i.e. liberals versus conservatives. So many local issues have nothing to do with liberal versus conservative viewpoints.
    7. If a specific allegation on an issue is made, make sure the facts are there to back up the allegation.
    8. Try and stay somewhat objective, without injecting extreme bias into the discussion. Don’t conform facts to fit a pre-conceived conclusion/agenda.

    I, for one, would like to thank the Vanguard and all the people behind the scenes that make it work. And a big thanks to commenters willing to put their views out in public and have them tested in the marketplace of ideas. The Vanguard had become an extremely important community forum.

  13. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]I am fairly sure that you know that is not what I am advocating since on multiple previous posts, I believe that what I have made clear that what I advocate is a full discussion of the pros and cons of any medical choice, and where that full discussion belongs is between the patient and doctor without the terms of the discussion being dictated by any third party, be it an insurer, or a church, or the government.[/quote]

    Are you saying that a discussion of pros and cons should not take place in public?

  14. wdf1

    An Impossible Standard: When NPR Covers Its Sponsors ([url]http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2012/03/16/148778815/an-impossible-standard-when-npr-covers-its-sponsors[/url])
    [quote]When host Audie Cornish drank a bottle of 5-Hour Energy on All Things Considered, several listeners were not entertained. Cornish’s act and the interview that followed were a conflict of interest and violated NPR’s new ethics code, they said. The company that makes the drink, Living Essentials, is an NPR corporate sponsor.[/quote]

  15. JustSaying

    The case in your example, to my memory, really shows how the “fair and balanced” approach to reporting actually provided a public service for which I’d think you’d approve. Assuming the incident really happened, Bachmann’s comment was an effort to support a view held by many that the government (Texas in this case) should stay out of mandating these decisions.

    Instead of just reporting Bachmann’s highly newsworthy comment, the media went out, got the “other side” and reported it as well. I think the whole episode indicates the positive side of “fair and balanced” reporting. And may even have encouraged some parents to get their children vacinated. What would you have had the media do with Bachmann’s comment?

  16. 91 Octane

    I know I have been among the vanguard’s harshest critics. I’ll give a few thoughts.

    1. Try hard to look at a particular situation objectively.

    For example, in nearly every article relating to protests and protestors, I have come to expect the vanuard to side with the protests against the police, and that has pretty much happened without fail. I don’t expect the vanguard to side with the police. But when confronted with facts that make the protestors look bad, I think the vanguard needs to prepare itself to acknowledge it and give it appropriate weight. If the vanguard did that more often, I would pull back on a lot of my criticism. I will try to be less critical of someone who is truly trying hard to be fair-minded.

    For example, in the pepperspraying incident, can the vanguard find itself admitting the protestors seriously played a negative role in how that protest ultimately ended?

    2. be careful of sources. The vanguard will admit at times that it has special relationships with the sources it uses, and this makes those sources suspect.

    3. Dr. Wu, Don Shor, Rich Rifkin, Medwoman while I often don’t side with them on various issues, they are among the most moderate voices on the blog in my view, and I think their input at times is among the most helpful.

    4. After writing an article, can the vanguard say: I have truly done my best to be fair to all sides of the issue?

  17. medwoman

    JustSaying

    I think what happened overall may have had a positive impact by prompting other members of the press to report more objectively.
    This is quite different from saying that a balanced presentation needs to be presented every time an issue is covered. If we were to hold all reporters to this standard ( to take the argument to its absurdist extreme ) would we not demand that a reporter give equal weight to a terrorists point of view of his action as we would to the victims point of view.
    What I am asserting is that somewhere in every controversial issue, there is a balance to be found between the goal or impartiality, and the goal of elucidating the “truth” with full recognition that neither is always, or even often, clear cut.

  18. medwoman

    Elaine

    “Are you saying that a discussion of pros and cons should not take place in public?”
    Of course not, as long as it is a discussion, and not a diatribe by a politically influential person, putting forth nothing but their personal opinion and professing it to be truth.
    Discussion is always appropriate as long as it is open for all sides to be heard.
    The final decision on whether or not to embark on a given course of action is what should be strictly between provider and patient.

  19. JustSaying

    I was responding to your citing a “specific example” about “impartial reporting,” not saying anything about “every time” or “terrorists'” or “absurdist extremes.”

    “However, there are other instances in which the evidence is so overwhelmingly weighted to one side as to make “impartial” reporting a travesty.”

    What would you have had the media do in the Bachmann case?

    I agree with your point how about “fair and balanced” reporting is problematic in cases where evidence is overwhelming or in David’s cases of how it doesn’t make sense to track down the opposition when opinions are being reported.

  20. medwoman

    JustSaying

    The question of what I would have had the media do in the Bachmann case is an interesting and difficult one for me.

    On the one hand, as a doctor whose job it is to provide the best information I can to my patients, this kind of statement on the part of a celebrity, be they famous politically or in the entertainment industry or socially prominent is to be dreaded. Many people accept what celebrities say on face value because they like their personality, or their show, or their politics. Amongst doctors there is a saying that relates to how many patients approach medical care. WWOD ( for “What would Oprah do ?”). This conversation is rarely good as there is no way I will ever have the credibility of Oprah or even Suzanne Sommers with some of my patients, especially those who seek definitive answers but have no nuanced knowledge of science and/or medicine.

    On the other hand, I respect the right of the individual to their own beliefs ( even when they are demonstrably in error ) and their right to express those beliefs. I also do not believe that any individual acting in good faith ( as I believe Bachmann probably was) should be publicly shamed or pilloried for expression of a truly held belief even if it has no merit. So it is difficult for me to say exactly what the correct action would be for the media in the delicate situation where a candidate has made a potentially very dangerous misstatement such as she did.
    While it is true as Elaine has stated, that immunizations do have risks, mental retardation is not one of those risks. This has never been credibly asserted let alone demonstrated and was truly just Bachmann telling an anecdotal account of one conversation.

    So, would it be best for the press to ignore what was obviously a totally off the cuff comment rather than make a big deal of it ? I don’t really see that as a possibility in these days of virtually every controversial statement going viral. Would it be best for a thorough investigation and reporting of the peer reviewed literature with the possibility of making Bachmann appear uninformed at best and ridiculous and dangerous at worst?

    I honestly don’t know. Thus the value I see in an ongoing discussion of our values as they relate to the appropriate role of the media.

  21. JustSaying

    It’s interesting that this really is a difficult call for you, and I appreciate your thoughtful look at the question. No wonder I have trouble bringing you around with my logic. As you might guess, it’s easy for me–press freedom overrides many things that are more important to others.

    So, I say report Bachmann’s goofy statement as well as the “other side” and move on. As a result, some people might have avoided the immunization while others might have been moved to get it for their kids. Some might end up dying because media reported Bachmann’s statement. That’s a shame, but a free press isn’t free or perfect.

    WWOD? What a interesting take from inside the profession. I would have thought the internet was the biggest trouble-maker for physicians (and maybe helpful as well). Oprah and the others must provide good info. sometimes and leave misguided folks in their wake sometimes.

    Anyway, thanks for explaining why this media issue didn’t seem as black & white as I thought it was.

  22. medwoman

    JustSaying

    Always happy to explain my sometimes kind of quirky views. I am grateful to the Vanguard and all those who post here. While I frequently do not agree with the points being put forward, it certainly helps to broaden my perspective and to clarify my own thinking on issues.

  23. Neutral

    [i][b]Objectivity and neutrality are not the same thing.[/b] Objectivity is a way of going at something, a way of thinking through something. You may come to a very firm position on it, an opinion on it, in which case you are not neutral. But you have arrived at it in an objective manner.

    And I think that’s about all they can ask. They can’t ask you to be an intellectual eunuch. And you must not be a tub-thumper all the time.”[/i] [url] Eric Severaid[/url].

    That about covers it.

  24. medwoman

    “Objectivity and neutrality are not the same thing.”

    Excellent, concise point. And objectivity would trump neutrality in almost every controversial instance I can think of.
    This is the heart of the evidence based approach which is now the gold standard of medical practice and which I would like to see applied much more in other areas.

  25. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]So, would it be best for the press to ignore what was obviously a totally off the cuff comment rather than make a big deal of it ? I don’t really see that as a possibility in these days of virtually every controversial statement going viral. Would it be best for a thorough investigation and reporting of the peer reviewed literature with the possibility of making Bachmann appear uninformed at best and ridiculous and dangerous at worst? [/quote]

    I could be wrong about this, but I suspect Bachmann’s comment was taken out of context (and I am no fan of Bachmann), and omitted the religious/moral overtones. The wider issue of HPV is that many parents do not want to subject their children to the inherent medical risks of a vaccine, for a disease that is only contracted through sexual activity (at least I think that is the argument). These parents believe they have raised their children not to engage in such risky behaviors as sex outside marriage. A health issue is mixed up with overriding religious/moral issues for some, if that makes any sense…

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