Balance is Unnecessary for Good Journalism

Balance be damned. Truth is what matters.

Here’s what “balanced” reporting can beget:

  • The birthers.  A large group of right-wing conspiracy theorists who mistakenly believe that President Obama was born in Africa and doesn’t have a legitimate U.S. birth certificate.  Yet Hawaiian officials deny those claims and have produced copies of Obama’s birth certificate.
  • Death panels.  The claim by members of the newly formed Tea Party movement that the health care reform bill sponsored by the Democrats included language that would create “death panels” to determine if sick elderly patients would receive care or be abandoned to die.  There was, of course, no such language.
  • Vaccinations and autism.  The belief by a growing number of people that the childhood vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella can trigger autism.  This despite no creditable scientific evidence and, in fact, tons of evidence to the contrary.
  • Evolution vs. intelligent design.  A growing movement of Americans that believe that evolution – re-labelled as “Darwinism” – is an unproven belief system on par with creationism.  In fact, evolution is a scientific fact and forms the basis of the study of biology.
  • Holocaust deniers.  A group of people that claim that the Nazi death camps in World War II targeting Jews and other minority groups did not happen or have been exaggerated despite the overwhelming evidence found in the historical record.

The cases above were legitimatized by getting lots of media coverage.  Many of these movements were actually debated on TV news programs as if there were two legitimate sides to the story.

For example, Larry King on CNN interviewed one of the most vocal opponents to childhood vaccinations B-movie actress Jenny McCarthy.  McCarthy told King’s audience: “No, I do not believe that vaccines are the sole cause for autism. I do believe they are a trigger.”

King presented the former Playboy model and college drop-out as a legitimate scientific source on vaccinations – even though the real scientists and doctors at the Centers of Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health have determined no link between vaccinations and autism in several published studies.  Time magazine even wrote an article about the lack of scientific evidence supporting the autism connection, but headlined its story: “How Safe Are Vaccines?” as if the issue was still up for debate.

So now we have many people confused about the issue when there should be no confusion.  Vaccinations have been one of the most important and successful public health initiatives in history – having literally saved the lives of millions of children.

The only way fringe movements – especially those fringe movements with no basis in fact – can become legitimate is to get media coverage.  The media often succumb to these groups in the mistaken belief that they need to provide “balanced” coverage.

Balance in journalism has always been tricky and misinterpreted – not only by the public, but by journalists.  When I was a journalist, the mantra was always: “Get both sides of the story.”

This was an effort to be fair – to make sure that the two-sides to every story were given equal weight. But unfortunately, there aren’t two sides to every story.  Sometimes there’s only one side – and many times there are multiple sides (I’ve written about the myth of “two-sides of news” before).

The examples above are issues with only one side.

Obama, for example, was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961.  Here’s a copy of his birth certificate.  There is no “other” side.

Yet the media felt compelled to air the birther’s beliefs in the name of “balanced” news.  As a result, the reporting actually help spread the misinformation and bolster the claim.  Some media outlets – like FOX-TV and Lou Dobbs on CNN – actually spread the untruths as a legitimate controversy.  At one point in August 2009, more than a quarter of all Republicans believed Obama was foreign born.

Spreading misinformation is bad journalism.  But it was this bad, but balanced journalism that helped spread the birther lies about the president.

The first obligation of journalism should be the truth.  In the age of internet communications, where any fringe group of a web page can spread lies and deceit instantly and around the world, journalists need to forgo the antiquated idea that balance is part of uncovering truth.

Truth is what matters.  If journalism is to survive and thrive in the 21st century then uncovering truth needs to be its primary goal.  Not dividing every issue into two competing, but equal sides.

I’ve shared my opinion.  What do you think?  Is balance necessary for good journalism?

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7 Responses to “Balance is Unnecessary for Good Journalism”

  1. Interesting post, George, although I’d take it in a different direction.

    My opinion is that there are usually many more sides than one to every story, and that the biggest threats to unbiased journalism aren’t bloggers or fringe movements, but the nearly complete control of mainstream media outlets by huge corporations. These conglomerates have their myriad tentacles dipping into diverse business enterprises and doling out millions in cash to Washington lobbyists. If that’s not a set-up for a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.

    Ben Bagdikian warned of the danger of concentrated media ownership more than two decades ago, and since corporate media ownership has grown even more condensed. In 1983 when Bagdkian’s book “The Media Monopoly” was written, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U.S. By 2004, the number had dwindled to six.

    To cite one example of corporate media activism, the “Birther” story is one that has been pushed almost exclusively by Fox News, which is to the Republican Party what Pravda was to the USSR. Fox’s motive isn’t to provide balance by but to damage the president politically. News Corporation has close ties with corporate interests that stand to benefit if Obama is weakened.

    NBC News is owned by General Electric, which is not only one the nation’s largest arms manufacturers but derives half of its revenues from financial services. Are we to honestly believe that NBC News will be aggressive in its pursuit of graft, corruption or wrongdoing on the part of the mega-billion defense or financial sectors and the government officials who regulate them?

    Am I talking about censorship? No. I’m talking about self-censorship and groupthink. Why piss off your boss’s boss’s boss when it’s likely to cause you nothing but grief? Be a team player for God’s sake. The “corporate culture” likes it that way.

    On health care legislation, there are many perspectives and many stories to be told, several of them quite ugly regardless of lawmakers’ political affiliations. Many citizens on both the right and the left were passionately against the broad health reform proposals, but few were passionately supportive. The Republicans have always been more adept than Democrats at framing issues in words and phrases that support their convictions. Referring to the federal estate tax a “death tax” is another example of the Republicans using terminology to their advantage.

    On vaccination, government data has conflicted often enough and corporate conflicts of interest have been demonstrated frequently enough that a reasonable person may deem it unwise to take government information as gospel on anything. If there is any one thing that makes me concerned about the state of journalism in the US, it is the near-universal tendency on the part of the media to report government-supplied information as fact, often without attribution. Better to placate lawmakers and have media market ownership rules relaxed than be aggressive and see valuable connections with legislators and regulators dry up.

    Vaccines are a multi-billion dollar business that spent millions of dollars successfully lobbying federal lawmakers to make pharmaceutical companies immune from vaccine-related malpractice lawsuits. Vaccines are heavily marketed, with tens of millions spent annually on television spots that have peddled vaccines for everything for Lyme disease to HPV (a venereal disease) for pubescent girls. In the case of the Lyme and HPV vaccines, recipients have complained of side effects ranging from arthritis to blood clots.

    They may have been a fringe movement, but it certainly wasn’t unreasonable for concerned parents to start complaining a decade ago about the use of mercury (thiomersal) as a low-cost vaccine preservative, especially as the per capita number of childhood vaccinations increased 300 percent over twenty years. Until just a few years ago, if you added up the amount of mercury contained in all of the vaccines injected in your child’s body, you realized that the amount vastly exceeded the level of mercury exposure the EPA itself deemed safe.

    Thiomersal has been pretty much phased out on a voluntary basis by the drug companies, not because of government regulators or hard-hitting journalism, but because of sustained grassroots activism.

    Until just a few years ago, pharmaceutical companies, doctors and government advisors recommended that healthy, post-menopausal women take prescription estrogen supplements. This recommendation was reversed after sound studies concluded that far from being beneficial to human health, estrogen supplements actually put women’s health at risk. This reversal occurred after tens of millions of women took the drug and after drug companies made tens of billions of dollars in profit on them.

    No wonder so many reasonable people are so skeptical. Nearly always, news stories are more complex and multi-faceted than they are presented, with hidden agendas an ulterior profit motives typically left unmentioned. The main message for investigative reporters working for corporate media entities seems to be this: follow the money, as long as it doesn’t lead back to us, our corporate interests or our associates. Better yet, why not see how John and Kate and Tiger are faring. More eyeballs, less controversy, what’s not to love.

  2. Hi Tim:
    Thanks a bunch for the interesting comments. I agree that there are many dangers from a corporate controlled media. Lots of conflicts there – but not all corporations are corrupt. But that’s another blog post!

    However, I will disagree with your comments on vaccinations. There has been no studies showing that thiomersal harmed any children. As you note, thiomersal was phased out – mostly because of the loud protests from groups that claimed it was responsible for triggering autism. Yet, since thiomersal was phased out, autism rates have continued to climb.

    Study after study have shown no connection between thiomersal and autism or vaccinations and autism.

    We can live in a world of paranoia and not believe in anything – or in anyone. But that isn’t a world I want to live in. I trust our government and what they report (with a healthy skepticism we should all have when getting new information).

    Are they always right? Of course not. But then again neither are the New York Times, Washington Post and the Economist.

  3. Hi George,

    Long time not talk. Glad to see you’re still banging out the words.

    Jim Dempsey

  4. Jim!
    Great to hear from you! Yes, still banging out the words. Hope you are well. Please send me an email so we can catch up!

  5. Hi George,

    My kids are vaccinated, I’m vaccinated. In general, I don’t have a problem with vaccines.
    I do have a problem with injecting my kids, myself, or anyone else with a levels of a known neurotoxin that the government itself has deemed much higher than safe, especially when other alternatives are widely available.

    My issue with the vast majority of news outlets these days isn’t that they are run by corporations; after all, they’ve always been businesses. My problem isn’t with the free market either. If you create value, I think you deserve to be compensated for it fairly, and if you get filthy rich, all the better.

    My problem is with the extreme concentration in media ownership and all of the associated conflicts of interest that have arisen as a result. These conflicts stifle competition instead of encouraging it.

    Before you write me off as a bitter skeptic, though, you should know that I think the antidote for much of this is a vibrant, unfiltered blogosphere. The free exchange of ideas we’re witnesses thanks to social media is spurring communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation, and giving people a much more enlightened sense of the world around them.

  6. That picture looks like the statue of liberty.


  1. Balance is Unnecessary for Good Journalism « HighTalk « Computation + Journalism Class at Georgia Tech - February 9, 2010

    […] leave a comment » Balance is Unnecessary for Good Journalism « HighTalk. […]

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