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.

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