Why “Balance” Hurts Journalism

Intelligence Squared is a wonderful program on NPR that features Oxford style debating among experts on various topics.

This month, the show, hosted by ABC News correspondent John Donovan, featured a debate on whether to repeal “Obamacare.”  Arguing for the repeal was former U.S. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Arizona).

As Donovan introduced Shadegg they had this telling exchange:

DONOVAN: They liked your rhetoric (John), which included on this topic a reference to the Obama reform program as Soviet style gulag healthcare.  I want to say, come now.  Hey.  Do you stand by that?

SHADEGG: No.  I think that it is a — it is a part of the dialogue that you try to get attention.  And that was an attempt to gather some attention.

DONOVAN: And it worked.

What we have here is a former U.S. congressman admitting that he spread falsehoods about the Affordable Care Act “to get attention.”  And then a national journalist calling him out on it, but then giving him a verbal slap on the back for his tactic being so effective.

It is this type of “rhetoric” is what has caused the widespread belief in this country that President Obama was born in Africa (he was born in Hawaii) and that the Affordable Care Act contained a provision for death panels deciding whether the elderly lived or died (a complete falsehood).

These ridiculous notions were picked up and spread by the media in the name of balanced news coverage.  Balance in journalism is the idea that “both” sides need to be presented in a news story to make it fair and accurate.

On the surface this seems like a sound practice, except for a crucial point:

Sometimes news has only one side and other times it has more than two.

As I’ve argued before, balance is unnecessary for good journalism.  In fact, it may be doing more harm than good to our current civic discourse in the United States.

Balance has become obsolete for a very good reason.  Corporations, political parties, organizations, politicians, influencers and et al have figured out how to manipulate the media’s obsession for balance by doing exactly what U.S. Rep. Shadegg did: Exaggerate to the point of falsehood in order to grab headlines and attention.  The more outrageous the exaggeration – the better.

What should matter to the media is the truth.

Whether the truth is one side or a combination of many isn’t as important as getting to the underlying facts at the bottom of any issue or news event.  As an example, we can point to another ongoing news event: The Wisconsin budget fight.

Here is the situation in Wisconsin in a nutshell: Republican Gov. Scott Walker has called for concessions from public labor unions in order to balance the state budget.  Wisconsin has a projected deficit of $137 million this year and $3.6 billion by mid-2013.  As part of those public union concessions, Walker is insisting that the unions give up their right to collective bargaining.

The media has allowed Gov. Walker to frame his efforts to undermine union power as a matter of balancing the budget.  Sounds good, except that collective bargaining rights have nothing to do with balancing the budget in Wisconsin.  In fact, the public labor unions there have agreed to almost all of Walker’s cuts to their salaries and benefits.

It doesn’t matter if you are pro-labor or anti-union, the budget issue is a red herring in the battle for collective bargaining rights.  The real story is more complicated and has its roots in ideology and power – more than fiscal responsibility.  It should be framed that way by the media.

The media needs to shift away from the myth that balance leads to truth.  It doesn’t.  And falling prey to exaggerations and half-truths damages the media’s creditability, undermines the truth and hurts civil discourse.

What do you think?


Intelligence Squared debate on healthcare

Balance is Unnecessary for Good Journalism

Associated Press: Facts Overshadow Debate in Wisconsin

Photo by Jeff Keen (via Flickr)


  1. New way to find balance is reading the same story by different publications « Emily's Editing Blog - March 28, 2012

    […] seems to be argued that striving for balance in a story can lead to the publication of opinions that just aren’t true. Opinions that are proven to be […]

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