Balance Continues to Undermine Journalism

Why do 48% of Iowa Republicans believe Obama was born in Africa? Because the media keeps reporting it.

Balance in journalism needs to be reassessed.  It damages the fundamental purpose of journalism, which is to provide readers with the truth, and has led to a proliferation of misinformation.

The latest example is the increasing numbers of the people who believe President Obama was born in Africa.  A recent poll showed that nearly half of Iowa Republicans believe this fabrication.  Why is this falsehood about Obama’s citizenship continuing to be an issue?

Because journalists – in a futile attempt to prove their objectivity and balance – continue to report on right-wing falsehoods about the authenticity of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate.  This despite the fact that these ridiculous fabrications have been repeatedly dispelled.  Yet the media continue to allow right-wing candidates and operatives to spread misinformation about Obama’s birthplace – with little effort to challenge or correct it.

The latest example is last week’s OnPoint Radio show about Donald Trump’s possible presidential run.  OnPoint is a NPR-sponsored news show.

Here is OnPoint guest host Jane Clayson talking about Trump’s patently false assertions that President Obama was not born in the United States:

Clayson: And he (Trump) made the claim referenced by him and others which, we should add, has been shown to be completely false.  This one being that no one in the Hawaii high school that Obama went to remembered him being there.

Trump (audio excerpt): Our current president came out of no where.  Came out of no where!  In fact, I’ll take it a step further.  The people who went to school with him… they don’t… they never saw him.  They don’t know who he is.  Right?

Clayson: So the birther issue getting traction on Obama.

So Clayson readily admits that Trump is being dishonest – but plays the clip anyway.  And then says that the “birther issue” is getting traction.  She allows Trump to state information that she knows is untrue and then makes an assessment that this misinformation has Obama on ropes.

Later in the same show Bob Vander Plaats, a Republican operative from Iowa, brings up the issue again.

Vander Plaats: What Donald Trump is bringing to this campaign so far is someone who is blunt, is speaking his mind.  And to be quite honest, I think Iowans and Americans they want somebody who is very blunt, very honest, very transparent.  And when it comes to the birth certificate, I think where Iowans stand is that they probably think he [Obama] was born in America.  It is a half-hour process to get it, display it, prove it and put it behind him like any good leader would.  Don’t let this be a distraction.  The fact of the matter is 48 percent of Iowans have a question of whether he was actually born in the United States.  I think if I am President Obama put that issue behind you.  You know let’s start talking about real issues.  The fact that he won’t just come clean on that issue.  I think that makes a lot of Iowans suspect and they are glad to see Trump bring it up.

Clayson: I think that is a separate issue even though the legal document in Hawaii, which is called a certification of live birth, proves that he was born in Hawaii.  I’m just curious, back to Donald Trump…

Clayson again allows her guest to repeat multiple falsehoods with only a cursory admission that it pure fabrication – before changing the subject.  This begs the question: Why is Clayson interviewing someone who is providing false information to her and her audience?  And why doesn’t she forcefully reject those arguments head on?  Her guest is actually allowed to call Trump “honest” and “transparent” for the act of repeating blatant falsehoods.

And then – to add insult to injury – the guest gets to blame Obama for the “birther issue” by falsely claiming that Obama hasn’t addressed it or released his birth certificate.

And we wonder why people are misinformed?

Clayson and OnPoint, unfortunately, are not alone in this behavior.  The “birther issue” is covered by all of the mainstream media.  Just look at the headlines Trump has made with it.  Why is the media reporting on this?  Are they in the business of allowing misinformation to be broadcast simply because someone says it?  Unfortunately, in the name of balance, this appears to be the case.

I can tell you why right-wing Republicans keep talking about Obama’s birthplace – because it generates a lot of media coverage.

The media need a new playbook because corporations, political parties, organizations, politicians and influencers have figured out how to manipulate the media’s obsession for balance by doing exactly what Trump and Van Plaats are doing: Exaggerating facts or spreading falsehoods in order to grab headlines and attention.  The more outrageous the falsehood – the better.

As William James, the father of modern psychology, once said: “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.”

Now if only the media could figure that out.


Why Balance Hurts Journalism

Balance is Unnecessary for Good Journalism

Poll on Politico showing nearly half of Iowa Republicans believe Obama born in Africa

OnPoint’s segment on Donald Trump


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

    […] 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 untrue should be weeded out by the reporter. But if two experts […]

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