Why We Need to be Balanced about Balance in Journalism

“While a number of news outlets, including the BBC, have made efforts to try and tackle false balance, this phenomenon has taken on a new life in Ireland. Earlier this year the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint against The Mooney Show on RTÉ for not giving an opportunity to hear an opposing view on same-sex marriage… This ruling is clearly absurd.”

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John Stuart Mill was an  eloquent and outspoken advocate for free speech and balance in the media. He argued that listening to opinions we don’t necessarily agree with us helps us to learn greater truths.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Objectivity in the media is one of the tenets  of journalistic integrity, and often this is achieved by providing ‘balance’, the opportunity for both sides to make their case. After all, a lack of balance suggests that media outlets can be used to push certain agendas without being required to present the other side. Given the influence the media has, and its role in mediating the relationship between the citizenry and government, balance is important in order to give a fully informed perspective on specific issues.

The principle of balance was the primary consideration in the seminal Irish case of Coughlan v Broadcasting Complaints Commission (2000) where the Supreme Court held that the transmission of 10 advertisements supporting a yes vote in the referendum to abolish the ban on divorce, compared to 3 advertisements supporting a no vote, was unconstitutional and in breach of fair procedures. There is now a strict 50-50 requirement (minute for minute parity) in all television and radio broadcasts concerning elections and referenda in Ireland.

Indeed this case represents a good example of the pitfalls of requiring equal coverage of both sides of a political issue. After all, the majority of mainstream political parties, as well as other civil society groups, supported the abolition. Groups who supported maintaining the ban on divorce were in the minority and it was for that reason that there were more ads in support of a yes vote than a no vote.

Indeed, it is interesting that when you Google ‘balance in the media’, the first page only shows results for ‘false balance’. False balance is defined as presenting an issue as being more balanced being opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports.

One of the reasons for balance is that we don’t necessarily know the truth on every subject and therefore should give consideration to all theories lest it turn out we were wrong in our beliefs. JS Mill argued ‘If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.’

However, to take this view that everything is relative and that there are no knowable truths ignores the mountains of scientific evidence we have amassed and the lessons we have learned. A good example held up recently on an issue which is represented as having value on both sides of the argument is climate change. On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver created a ‘statistically accurate debate’ on the topic, placing 3 climate change denying scientists against 97 scientists with evidence of the phenomena, showing that the one side was not nearly as accurate as the other.

In fact, when we present both sides as having equal value we actively spread disinformation to the public. Other scientific issues where the jury is in, including vaccines and evolution, are currently the subjects of ‘divisive debates’. Not only is the public lacking the facts to make an informed decision, the disinformation spread regarding vaccines is having a real impact, including the resurgences of whooping cough, smallpox and measles.

 

Truth does not just apply to scientific theory. There should be some regard to the accuracy of the ideas being put forward in politics and other arenas. During the Lisbon Treaty election in Ireland, a number of fringe political parties used their air time to argue that Ireland would lose its neutrality, its low corporate tax rate and its ban on abortion if it passed the Lisbon Treaty, none of which was going to happen. Part of the reason these arguments got so much attention was because the 50-50 rule was in place. As a result, when the Irish population voted against the Treaty the first time around, neutrality, abortion and taxation topped the list of reasons people voted no in a post-election Irish Times survey.

While a number of news outlets, including the BBC, have made efforts to try and tackle false balance, this phenomenon has taken on a new life in Ireland. Earlier this year the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint against The Mooney Show on RTÉ for not giving an opportunity to hear an opposing view on same-sex marriage. The guest on the show talked about his recent civil partnership and how he hoped the referendum on same-sex marriage would pass. Interestingly this was a human interest piece and not a current affairs debate.

This ruling was followed recently when the BAI also partially upheld a complaint against the Newstalk radio station for talking for 20 minutes about the Dublin Gay Pride Parade and being sympathetic to the arguments for same-sex marriage.

Both rulings have been greeted with criticism from the media and the general public, with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network arguing that this would mean that the gay people would not be able to discuss their lives without someone opposing them. This decision by the BAI is undoubtedly absurd, both practically and I would argue morally. Someone’s identity should not be subject to a 50-50 time limit.

The BAI argued that “In issuing its criticism of the BCC, the National Union of Journalists has unwittingly lined up with those who would like to dismantle the legal requirement for fairness in broadcasting.” I’d argue that when there is a legal requirement for 50-50 ‘balance’ regardless of the quality of the argument then there is no fairness in broadcasting.

Hosts, presenters and editors should be required to clarify or not broadcast any intentionally false information. I also think that discriminatory or intolerant content should not be given a megaphone. But I still believe that balance should exist. Apart from the fact that there are only a handful of TV and radio stations in places like Ireland, I disagree with the idea that fairness exists because people have a choice what to watch.

Now, more than ever, people have the option of only watching news they agree with. Groupthink, where people ignore alternative ideas and constantly reinforce their own opinions, even if they are wrong, has become increasingly pervasive. Even if people don’t agree with ideas, they should be at least forced to listen to the other side in order to show them that there are other narratives out there and to prevent the kind of dogma we are increasingly seeing, especially among our politicians.

The main difference between the BBC and Fox News is balance. Arguably one informs the public and the other promotes an agenda. I’d rather live in a world where BBC is the norm.

Balance is important. Where there are two equally, or even mostly, viable sides of a debate then both need to be represented. However, the automatic legal requirement for balance without any regard for the accuracy of the arguments can do more harm than good.

 

Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

One thought on “Why We Need to be Balanced about Balance in Journalism”

  1. Hi Joanna,

    Good piece, well argued. Be careful – you might end up becoming (draws in breath sharply) a liberal!!!

    Keep up the good work,

    Dermot

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