Is Balance The Right Goal?

A Rowdy Reader recently commented “’Balance’ is the wrong goal (for journalism). People want truth. I would submit to you that there is an absolute truth to describe every story.”

He’s not alone. Consider this recent 60 Minutes exchange between CBS’s Lesley Stahl and CNN’s Lou Dobbs:

Dobbs: “I’ve never, Lesley, found the truth to be fair and balanced. I’ve found it to be…,”
Stahl: “But, that’s, but wait, what’s the definition of ‘journalism?’ That that’s in there. That has to be part of what a journalist is, is fair and balanced.”
Dobbs: “I truly believe there’s a non-partisan, independent reality.”
Stahl: “But, it’s your reality.”
Dobbs: “It is my reality.”
Stahl: “But, it’s not ‘the’ reality.”
Dobbs: “Well, how so?”

If only it were that simple.

I’m sure jihadists have an easier time deciding where they stand on issues than I do, because The Absolute Truth is quite clear to them. I’m sure reporting for the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun is less complicated than writing for USA Today because they simply report Kim Jong-Il’s Absolute Truth, rather than attempting to fairly present both sides of the issue.

But for a lot of us, “the absolute truth” is not patently obvious. We search for it and are rarely sure when we have and haven’t found it. As Mark Twain said, “Truth is more of a stranger than fiction.”

When is welfare an act of compassion and when is it inadvertently cruel to be kind? When is investing in education truly needed and when is it merely fueling a misguided bureaucracy that won’t improve outcomes? When should we make public decisions through our democratically elected representatives and when should we make them through direct elections? When is affirmative action institutionalized prejudice and when is it a just means for righting historical wrongs? How do we know when government spending is at a level that harms our economy versus when we are failing to invest in things that will improve the economy? How can we tell if the Iraq war is keeping terrorists from harming our citizens rather than inadvertently fueling such terrorism?

Most Americans struggle with those issues. We don’t know “the absolute truth.” When done right, balanced news reporting helps us sort it all out. It gives us food for thought. It challenges and bolsters our preconceptions. It allows us to make up our own minds during our search for the truth, rather than delegating the job to Lou Dobbs or Alan Colmes.

Allow me to be a control freak. Today’s question is not whether journalistic notions of balance is a historical norm or an abberation, or whether traditional news delivery devices can or should survive in the face of emerging news delivery devices. And please, today’s question is not whether today’s journalists achieve balance. Those are valid and interesting topics, and I promise we will wallow in them in the future.

But I’d love to hear thoughts on this more narrow topic: Is democracy likely to be more healthy if the goal of our most read and viewed news sources is providing a) balanced coverage or b) the truth?

— Loveland

11 thoughts on “Is Balance The Right Goal?

  1. I just hope that this “balanced” coverage isn’t “here’s the one side, and here’s the other.” Because that’s bullshit. Any pursuit of either balance or the truth is more than just “Senate majority leader says…, but Senate minority leader says…”

    But isn’t delivering balanced coverage a *path to* the truth? Maybe you never actually get to an absolute truth, but I think balanced, fair information is what helps us carve a path toward the truth. It’s not balance *or* truth. It’s balance *for* truth (or something that resembles truth).

  2. Smart response, Mike, as usual.

    I don’t think the goal should be either balance or truth. I think it should be a 360-degree range of perspectives, backed up by evidence and presented over time.

    I agree balance is often deceptive — the story looks fair but it’s just presenting two takes on what’s happened or happening rather than just one. One person on this blog says government borrowing is helping the economy, one says it’s hurting. Traditional journalists too often leave the story at that — he said she said.

    I want to see accurate information from both sides, not just assertions. Then I can judge for myself if borrowing is good or bad, if shifting some taxes off the middle class and onto the wealthy is going to help or hurt the state.

    So — I’m looking for accuracy in information that backs up assertions. I’d love to see the assertions — taxing the rich is killing this state — made more passionately, more rowdily, and then I want to see the evidence and some examples. I don’t care if the individual story is balanced, but over time I want to see the media outlet give many points of view time and space.

    Can we find the truth through journalism? Damned hard. What’s the truth, would taking a bigger tax bite from the wealthy hurt or help the state overall? Show me your view of the truth, and back it up, and I’ll listen. Then I’ll listen to others’ views and their evidence, and I’ll make up my mind on what I think is the right thing to do. Based on views of reality that I come to trust based on how well they make and back up their points.

    And that’s the truth…

  3. jl says:

    Reminds me of Stephen Colbert speaking truthiness to power at the Press Club:

    “…let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The president makes decisions; he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction.”

  4. jloveland says:

    Comedy Central is popular becuse it’s funny, cocksure, unbalanced, and is perceived to be the place where someone finally speaks truth to power, the precise words dittoheads use to describe Rush. Both Rush and John Stewart come closer to Category A – news sources whose goal is to not to report both sides, but to tell the Truth.

    So if it’s 2020, and 90% of citizens get their news from Rush/Stewart type Truth-telling instead of AP/NBC Nightly News style reporting, will the democracy be stronger or weaker?

  5. Bill Dewey says:

    Lesley Stahl’s reality and Lou Dobbs’s reality are mostly not the same, as Lou tacitly admitted. Both of them — and each of us — composes OUR reality from what we know of the objective truth, and our own views, which come from our past experiences and gratuitious biases. A journalist does me service if s/he tells as much of the truth as can be found, and leaves it up to me to make a reality of it.

    Of course, reporting what some other people have to say about things is useful, when we know that they have access to more objective truth and we know pretty well how their own lenses process it. It used to be that Time magazine was a very reliable source, once you shifted what it said about 60 degrees to the left.

    I do wish, however, that ‘journalists’ would stick to reporting on what matters to most people’s lives. I always loved the way Peter Jennings treated the sensationalism he was required to read with such a delicate sneer. I fear that the current cohort are turning into nothing but gossiping heads.

  6. Whether you recognize it or not, there’s an assumption running through this discussion that “truth” and “balance” are the product of presenting or reconciling two opposing sides. Anyone who starts out thinking that way is going to fail, because life is not binary. This is a convenient construct that we accept in politics and other endeavors because it’s simpler than reality.

    But at its very best it only gives us what we have today.

  7. jl says:

    Q, I don’t think “balance” is necessarily binary, or consisting of two parts. But “balance” is not uninary (a word I just invented meaning consisting of one part), which is what Rush, Air America, Dobbs, etc. deliver. One viewpoint — their viewpoint — is presented as The Truth.

    Achieving balance means offering as many viewpoints as it takes (omninary??), but you raise a good point that mainstream media, often because of space limitations, usually only offers point and counterpoint.

  8. GH says:

    Good discussion.

    My vote: A free press (and free speech, more importantly ) is critical to a healthy democracy. Balanced news reporting is not.

    Although Loveland doesn’t want to bring history into it, I can’t help it. American democracy and others, have done both well and poorly on both sides of the partisan/non-partisan press pendulum. Start to curb a free press, though, and watch things erode.

    The freedom’s the thing. What we do with that freedom IS democracy. and at the moment the democracy’s resulting in Lesley and Lou and bombast and provocation and all those things that disappoint those of us who’d prefer more thoughtful approaches. It’s not my favorite flavor of news, but I’m not about to presume the democracy needs something I like better.

  9. A terrorism story you'll never find in the Strib says:

    Graying duo keep passenger in check

    By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff | June 5, 2007

    Shortly before landing, Bob Hayden and a flight attendant had agreed on a signal: When she waved the plastic handcuffs, he would discreetly leave his seat and restrain an unruly passenger who had frightened some of the 150 people on board a Minneapolis-to-Boston flight Saturday night with erratic behavior.

    Hayden, a 65-year-old former police commander, had enlisted a gray-haired gentleman sitting next to him to assist. The man turned out to be a former US Marine.

    “I had looked around the plane for help, and all the younger guys had averted their eyes. When I asked the guy next to me if he was up to it, all he said was, ‘Retired captain. USMC.’ I said, ‘You’ll do,’ ” Hayden recalled. “So, basically, a couple of grandfathers took care of the situation.”

    The incident on Northwest Airlines Flight 720 ended peacefully, but not before Hayden, a former Boston police deputy superintendent and former Lawrence police chief, and the retired Marine had handcuffed one man and stood guard over another until the plane touched down safely at Logan International Airport around 7:50 p.m.

    State Police troopers escorted two men off the flight. Trooper Thomas Murphy, a State Police spokesman, said one of the men was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital for “an unspecified medical issue, possibly mental health.”

    He said State Police detectives will investigate whether the man’s behavior should be treated as a medical or criminal matter. A second man escorted off the plane identified himself as the unruly passenger’s brother. Murphy said police would not release the names of the men, who Hayden said appeared to be in their 30s or 40s.

    Dean Breest, a spokesman for Northwest, confirmed that “there was an incident that required State Police to come on board the aircraft” but declined further comment.

    Hayden said the unruly man’s behavior upset some passengers. One told Hayden the man had said, “Your lives are going to change today forever,” as he shouted and refused to take his seat before takeoff and at various times during the nearly three-hour flight. He said that at one point the man lay on his back and was screaming, moaning, and thrashing on the floor.

    “Some people were crying,” Hayden said. “I thought it might be a diversion. I kept scanning the back of the plane to see if anyone was going to rush forward. The flight attendants did a great job, literally surrounding the two guys who were making all the noise. I told one of the flight attendants I was a retired police officer and would be willing to assist, so we agreed on a signal.”

    When the captain announced preparations for landing, the man jumped up shouting, the flight attendant held up the handcuffs, and Hayden and the Marine came bounding down the aisle. Hayden said he and the retired Marine, whose name he never got, received an ovation from fellow passengers, and “some free air miles.”

    Hayden’s wife of 42 years, Katie, who was also on the flight, was less impressed. Even as her husband struggled with the agitated passenger, she barely looked up from “The Richest Man in Babylon,” the book she was reading.

    “The woman sitting in front of us was very upset and asked me how I could just sit there reading,” Katie Hayden said. “Bob’s been shot at. He’s been stabbed. He’s taken knives away. He knows how to handle those situations. I figured he would go up there and step on somebody’s neck, and that would be the end of it. I knew how that situation would end. I didn’t know how the book would end.”

  10. jloveland says:

    The conspiracy is even more vast than you know. I couldn’t find that story on either. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes apparently want to give aid and comfort to unruly passengers too.

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