Saturday, March 01, 2008

Fairness and balance at no cost?

I follow David Reevely's Greater Ottawa blog. After all the community newspapers (which I try to read whenever I can get my hands on them--even the suburban ones), David's blog provides pretty decent regular, local content.

Up until recently, David was an editorial writer with the Ottawa Citizen. This involved forming opinions and expressing them in print. Kinda like what I do, but perhaps with less vulgarity and with a wider audience. But in early February, David announced that his position was being changed to be (partly) in charge of the news content--that is, the stuff that's supposed to be "objective".

The focus of this blog post was put very eloquently by David when he said:
A bigger question: How can a person keep a properly freewheeling blog and still be responsible for impartial news coverage? For that matter, how can someone who's been an opinion writer ever do anything in journalism that isn't opinion?

My opinion is that he can't. The inherent irony of FoxNews' slogan--"Fair and Balanced"--is applicable to all news organizations, particularly large bureaucratic ones. If one individual in the organization claims to be balanced, and even if they somehow manage it, then the biases of the organization (and/or of other individuals therein) dominate.

Now, I don't have a clue how the Citizen's newsroom operates, or what goes on in the editorial offices behind closed doors. And I am not going to go commission a massive study to investigate the balance of the Citizen's editorial output to try to prove my point. I don't need to prove my point--it's my opinion, and that's all it is.

But I will give some objectivity/fairness/balance anecdotes that I hope will illustrate my point and help you make an opinion of your own:

  • I don't know if you watch much of the Colbert Report, but Stephen Colbert, whose character parodies FoxNews pundits, frequently claims that he "cannot see race". And when you cannot see race, you cannot see that society treats some races a lot worse than others. In this way, balance/fairness is really just an excuse to not do something about an injustice, and it's actually dangerous.

  • At University, I was involved with the student newspaper. While I was there, there was an ongoing debate about "objective" journalism. The main point--which I believe has survived--is that the student newspaper is there to represent the interests of students, and therefore should be biased towards students, both in the selection and presentation of topics. Using an example from the Citizen, were it not for the Citizen's intervention (i.e. not just sitting back and watching objectively), Ottawa residents would be oblivious to the breadth of the allegations against Ottawa's mayor, Larry O'Brien. In this way, the Citizen is biased against corruption, and that's a good thing.

  • At City Hall, "fairness" reached a new low this past Wednesday. While 18 councillors voted in favour of a provincial moratorium on uranium mining, Councillor Gord Hunter voted against (which isn't out of character for him). Among the reasons he cited was "the city has only heard from uranium opponents and isn't getting the other side of the story." I'd hate to be in a room where he votes against making child molestation a crime because he didn't hear any words in support of child molestation!

  • Going back to the Citizen, I was recently reading an article that referred to a think-tank as "left-leaning". If you use the Citizen's search feature to look for the words "think tank", you'll find qualifiers like "the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver free-market solutions think-tank", "The CD Howe Institute, an economic think-tank", which seem to me to be synonyms for "right-wing think-tank". While one would have to do a more thorough analysis to see if there's any bias in these descriptions of "think tanks", it's definitely a term that should flag closer attention to underlying bias when it comes onto an editor's desk.

  • I have long been angered by the fact that "Auto Mart" magazines tend to be distributed at transit stations and in areas with high levels of pedestrian traffic. Back in 2005, I e-mailed my councillor about this, and her response included "The current Encroachment By-law, which licences all boxes with an annual permit, has the authority to regulate the position of the boxes but not their content" and "Constitutionally the City of Ottawa has limited powers to restrict freedom of expression." Since that time, large ads for auto companies and auto-related services have sprung up on the outsides and insides of buses (I keep a file of photos of such ads). But because the City is required to be 'objective', it must allow advertising on its transit vehicles that discourage people from using those very services!

  • Getting back to the Citizen... It is not uncommon that I am reading a Citizen article, and the second half of an article tells the story from an angle that was entirely absent in the first half. Often, I find I agree with the opinion of those presented in one half, and disagree with those in the other. Now, assuming it's okay to go halfway through an article without mentioning the other side (even though many people only read the first couple paragraphs), one would expect that in a truly balanced newspaper I would agree with the side presented in the first half 50% of the time. However, in the Citizen, I usually agree with the second half of this type of article.

  • As an extreme example of this, I turn your attention to the Nov. 25, 2007 story about the 'protest' at Bank & Somerset. This 450-word article described a 'protest' by business owners who were frustrated at the continued closure of the intersection of Bank & Somerset. There was a nice-sized photo, too, if I recall correctly. But it isn't until paragraph 8 that we learn that the protest "drew only about a half-dozen local business owners." Somehow, I doubt the Citizen gives every protest with six or more people a 450-word story with a photo. It isn't until the very last paragraph that we learn "Several anti-business protesters also gathered at the protest yesterday. They used a megaphone to chant 'Profits over safety,' often disrupting the business owners when they attempted to talk to people walking by."

  • There's actually much more to that last bit than the Citizen would have you believe. These counter-protesters were louder, they had bigger signs, and there were more of them. In fact, one of them told me after the protest that the Citizen photographer had a hell of a time trying to get a picture that didn't have any of the counter-protesters in the frame. To me, that sounds like going out of your way to hide a significant part of the story. One of the local papers (likely the Centretown Buzz) had good, separate articles on both the protest and the counter-protest that made me understand what I would have seen had I been there.

Fairness, balance, objectivity--call it what you want, but when you get it only by surrendering your opinion, there is definitely a cost.

- RG>

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