Wednesday, August 10, 2011


A few words about the concept of balance in journalism.

It's an old and deeply untrue claim that journalists are fair and impartial.

However, one way journalists can present the illusion of fairness is to balance out quotes, opinions and viewpoints from one side of an issue with statements in support of the other side. This is why most news articles tend have a familiar "on the one hand/on the other hand" tone.

But the important question, a question every skilled meta-reader knows to ask, is who decides which sides are presented? Even more importantly, are the two sides presented the only sides that exist?

So-called "balanced journalism" often takes the form of forcing a two-sided prism onto a multiple-sided debate. Worse, the two sides shown to readers might have been selected for disturbingly unrigorous reasons--like which sources called the reporter back before his deadline. (PS: Keep that in mind if you'd like your side to be one of the two sides presented)

This two-sided prism can also make an issue appear up for debate when there is no debate. A stylized example: Let's say the New York Times runs an article about teaching evolution in schools, and the article prominently quotes some religious crank in Kentucky who thinks the earth is 6,000 years old.

Note that the Times consistently runs condescending articles about cranks in the Midwest who think the earth is 6,000 years old. But the existence of this guy in the article gives him--and his views--a perceived authority that he doesn't have. Worse, it gives readers the difficult-to-dislodge impression that a substantial number of people in Kentucky think like he does.

The reality, however, is that this isn't how people in Kentucky think. This is how New York Times readers think people in Kentucky think. The media simply reflects our misperceptions back at us.

To me, this is one of the primary sins of the major media outlets. They choose the issues, and they choose the sides of those issues. And their readers believe they are being informed when in reality they become more ignorant.

Don't quietly ingest what's in the media. Ask why it's there, and think carefully about why it was rendered for you this way.

Writers, remember: you will never write with any subtlety if you cannot perceive it in what you read.