According to Mitt Romney, Barack Obama has ended the work requirements for welfare and stolen $716 billion from Medicare. Independent fact-checking organizations report that these claims are lies but the Romney campaign continues to put them forward as the truth in their ads and media interviews, explaining, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” Independent fact-checking organizations need to pronounce on this question because of the need for balanced journalism. Two decades ago, the media would have been the independent fact-checkers but today, that role has been delegated to a new crop of organizations because of something called “balanced journalism.”
We need independent fact-checkers today because of the post-Cold War shifts in journalistic ethics. Mistakenly, we often use the terms “journalistic balance” and “journalistic objectivity” interchangeably, even though they verge on being opposites. Journalistic objectivity is a theory that has been with us for some time and dates to the First Gilded Age (I think we may have entered the second) before the postmodern critique, when we still understood that if one believes society exists, one cannot declare agnosticism as to the existence of the physical world. Journalistic objectivity is premised on the belief that journalism refers to things that have objective existence, not just people’s opinions about the world but to the world itself.
Practitioners of objective journalism often believe that they should talk to all those involved in the attempt to discern the truth of what is going on, in order to report that truth in their ultimate article, radio or television report. In objective journalism, it is important for the journalist be a successful autodidact because they will often encounter information about things for which they have minimal professional training. Science journalism is the most obvious example of this and it is for this reason that journalists often must locate experts to interview, in order to discern what is actually going on in the story they are attempting to report.
In order to successfully practice objective journalism, it is not only necessary to locate experts who might have specialized knowledge about story; it often helps to visit the location where events have taken place, again order to confirm the basic facts of what is going on. The goal of all this is for journalists to be able to verify information and to educate themselves about general subject matter of their story. Retaining a sense of objectivity is crucial in this theory of journalism because it is necessary for the journalist put aside wishful thinking about what they want to be true and who they wish were correct and focus on ferreting out truth of the matter. This all sounds pretty idealistic; and, of course, for as long as journalism has been around people have fallen short of these standards. However, objectivity has, until recently, survived as a worthy aspiration; and this striving toward objectivity has enabled journalists to present people new and often shocking information about the world. Even if we have never achieved objectivity, generations of us have grown up believing that it was the ideal against which journalistic practice should be compared.
In the era of the great patriarchal news men, Walter Cronkite, Edward Morrow, etc. audiences looked to these great news anchors and reporters as trusted authorities not because they understood themselves to be in ideological accord with them but because they believed that they were upstanding members of a guild committed to the pursuit of truth through objectivity.
Beginning in the 1990s a new journalistic theory began to emerge that did not initially seem contrary to the ethic of objectivity. This theory is best termed “balance.” The idea behind the theory of journalistic balance is that there are two sides to every story and that to favour one side is to not be objective. Of course, in the old objectivity theory, it is true that journalists failed at objectivity if they did not equally examine and equally consider the views put forward by two opposing groups in a news story. If, during the investigative process, the journalist dismissed certain informants as untrustworthy while implicitly trusting others, they would have failed to conduct an objective investigation.
However, the sleight of hand associated with the theory of balance is that these ideas about the investigative process are now applied to the outcome of that process as well, to the news, itself. The point in balanced journalism is to simply report that two sets of claims are being made about a thing; to pronounce, as an objective journalist would, on which set of claims is true and which is false is to be unbalanced. Stephen Colbert, arguably the most eloquent authority on America’s epistemological divide, mock-excoriated the national press corps for their objectivity because, “it is a well-known fact that reality has a liberal bias.”
In an objective theory of journalism, journalists reporting that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq have carried out their journalistic responsibilities with integrity, having listened in an unbiased fashion to the claims of the Bush administration that there were WMDs and to contrary claims that there were not. They might then have interviewed weapons inspectors, traveled to Iraq, themselves, and otherwise sought to assess the objective veracity of those claims. But to report that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq is to succeed at objective journalism but to fail at balanced journalism. This is because the principles of journalistic balance relocate the practice of giving a fair hearing and equal treatment to those who making true claims and those making false claims from the process of investigation to the act of reporting.
A balanced story about evidence of weapons of mass destruction would require that the journalist report that certain people claimed there were weapons of mass destruction and certain people claimed there were not. Each side would be given an equal opportunity to make its case to the viewers but in order to avoid bias, it would be crucially necessary to conceal whether or not the weapons were actually there. To state that there were no weapons of mass destruction would be to admit bias against those who claim there were and, therefore, to be unbalanced. It is based on this theory of journalistic integrity that the UCLA journalism department conducted a study a few years ago that found “fair and balanced” FoxNews to be, just as it claims, the most unbiased news source in America because on Fox, truth and falsehood are treated equally. The objective truth or falsity of a claim does not affect its treatment by reporters or anchors.
UCLA is not the only journalism school that teaches the principles of balance rather than objectivity. Such principles are spreading in North American journalism for reasons I will speak to a future post. Suffice to say that the ascendance of balance and the decline of objectivity is not simply about the evil corporate media nor about journalistic sloppiness or laziness. It is an attempt on the part of journalists to respond to what has become a normal situation in America. Objectivity can only function as a standard if there is a social consensus about how to determine what is true, how to investigate and authenticate the objective conditions of the world. Without such a consensus, journalists have no choice but to retreat from objectivity, unless they wish to speak only to a subset of the population that is in accord concerning truth-seeking processes.
Between 1988 and 1993, I led a five-year campaign against ozone-destroying foam packaging in Canada. It succeeded because of objective journalism. We made the case to the news media about the specific chemical compounds that were being used to manufacture Styrofoam packaging and the misleading things that manufacturers were saying about them. This success was possible because there still existed a social consensus about how to determine what chemicals did in the atmosphere. Were I to attempt the same campaign today, I would fail. Journalists would not be allowed to reveal whether the companies I was attacking were lying or telling the truth. To do so would be biased and contrary to the fundamental principles of journalistic balance.
In this way the journalistic profession has become like science teachers working in the Kansas school system. They might know creationism is empirically false but they are nevertheless required to “teach the controversy,” their jobs dependent on never letting on to their students which theory of human development is true and which is not.