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Home > Publications > Quill > When “balance” really isn’t


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Friday, February 2, 2007
When “balance” really isn’t

A little bit of “pro” and “con” isn't enough

Commentary by Sally Lehrman

Can journalists be objective? Many reporters say we have to be; others think it’s impossible. After all, we take our life experience, moral beliefs and social status with us into every interview, whether we intend to or not.

But it’s safe to say that most journalists agree that we strive for balance, fairness and accuracy, all of which underpin our effort to provide objective news coverage.

What does balance really mean, though? A little bit of “pro,” a little bit of “con” for the main ideas in the story? A claim, followed by a quote from someone who disputes it?

I checked three journalism texts for answers, but not one included “balance” in the index. In “Reporting for the Media,” Fred Fedler placed it under the concept of “the need to be fair.” He wrote, “Present every significant viewpoint fully and fairly.” Give accused people a chance to respond.

On every beat, it’s easy to aim for balance but end up with something else. Balance depends not just on the ideas put forward in a story, but whose voices we include to give them life. What context and history do we offer to give the ideas meaning? Are we providing every significant viewpoint, or only a reaction to one?

Consider a recent science story when some unconscious stereotypes seemed to interfere with journalists’ efforts to achieve balance. At a meeting of his professional society, genetic epidemiologist Rod Lea presented unpublished findings that Maori men were twice as likely to carry what some geneticists call a “warrior” gene than other people.

“This means that they are going to be more aggressive and violent,” the scientist pointed out in an interview, suggesting “links with criminality among Maori people.”

Lea went on to explain that “the same gene was linked to high rates of alcoholism and smoking among Maori,” making them more likely to binge drink.

The Maori are the native people of New Zealand, descendants of the Polynesians who first settled there. They enjoy far less privilege than white people in New Zealand, and contend with high unemployment, low incomes, discrimination and health disparities. The journalists reporting on this new finding about yet another apparent disadvantage — their so-called inherent violent tendency — didn’t make much of an attempt to probe Lea’s conclusions or their foundation.

Instead they went for “balance.” In an attempt to get all sides of the story, they asked the opinion of Maori Party leaders. The Maori leaders, not being scientists themselves or familiar with the speckled history of behavioral genetics, could only react. In one story after another they “panned (Lea’s) claims” and “reacted furiously.” What else could they do? How would you react if someone accused you and your family of a biological tendency to commit crimes?

Two things happened in this story to throw off any semblance of balance: Journalists were all too ready to accept the proposal that Maori people were biologically prone toward violence. They also offered no alternate explanations or counterarguments to the science itself. Instead they countered “expert” opinion with a reaction on the street or quotes from people set up as the opposition merely because of their ethnicity.

Some journalists did report on crime statistics, which as the sole context provided seemed only to prove that this gene indeed explained a natural phenomenon. Reporters would have revealed more by probing the high level of unemployment, poverty, health inequities and lack of educational opportunities among the Maori. The association between violence and poverty and lack of opportunity is well-documented.

Armed with this social context, reporters — and their audiences — might have asked better questions. Knowing more about the social context in which Maori people live also would have helped audiences interpret the geneticist’s claims.

Rather than pitting one voice against another, we can probe the assumptions that underlie a particular claim. We can make uncertainties clear, explore what’s missing and look at the data. When it comes to balance, we also need to understand the role we are playing in the story ourselves. We have to learn to separate the social assumptions that come easily from the factual information we are gathering.

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