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Home > Publications > Quill > Reviving fairness in journalism


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Friday, April 3, 2009
Reviving fairness in journalism

Becky Tallent

In today’s media market, fairness often takes a backseat, said Bob Sands, manager of network news for Oklahoma’s public television network, OETA.

Years ago, young journalists were told to be “objective” in reporting, but people began to realize it is virtually impossible for humans to be completely objective, so “fair” was substituted. When SPJ revised its Code of Ethics in 1996, the Society said journalists should be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”

So what has happened? Is it true that what we see depends upon where we stand?

Those of us who are academics are not sure, but a quick search through journals looking for information about fairness yielded virtually nothing on fairness in U.S. news reporting. There was information about fairness in media for Australia, New Zealand and Sweden, among others, but about the only real discussion of American news media and fairness comes from FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingJ), a citizens group that challenges media accuracy.

FAIR has been challenging media standards since 1986 and continues its campaign of criticizing what it says are pervasive news media bias, exclusion and censorship. Why are media groups and organizations not also talking?

Sands, a 30-year news veteran, blames much of what is happening with fairness on talk radio, opinion disguised as news on 24-hour television stations, the economic difficulties in newspapers and the rise in advocacy journalism.

“Advocacy journalism I first heard about in the 1980s in Germany,” Sands said. “I was appalled. Who among us can divine what the right side is? We’re supposed to let the folks decide. We’re supposed to give the facts and let our audiences make up their own minds. Here, you present your point of view with the facts you chose to use and leave out the facts you chose to ignore.”

When it comes to fairness in the media, Sands said he doesn’t know whether it is still taught in journalism classes, “but it sure isn’t practiced anymore.”

As a professor, I find it disturbing to talk with people who say they want to become a reporter, but they do not like the idea of talking to one person — much less several people — in the course of a news story. Apparently, many young potential reporters feel they can gather all the information they need from the Internet without bothering real humans. Frequently, the Fox News slogan is tossed around with a wink and a nod from the students.

It is time to start talking about fairness and demonstrating that fairness is what we journalists do well. We can and do show multiple sides to a news story, and by doing so, we raise the plane of discussion for the readers, viewers, listeners, bloggers and others.

What is fairness? Fairness is telling multiple sides to a news story. It is getting comments from people who are involved, people who represent various points of view. It can mean the two opposing sides, but it can also mean the people in the middle.

Fairness is not ignoring groups who are outside the mainstream. On a major local issue, it can mean interviewing people from the Russian community in Spokane, Wash., the Vietnamese community in Oklahoma and the Kenyan community in Baltimore. It can mean talking with women, gays and lesbians, people who have physical disabilities, and people from the lower economic strata.

It means covering our communities, gathering input, getting out of our chairs and out the door to talk with people. Gathering as much information and opinion as we can on a situation of importance to our audiences. Asking the hard questions of people, especially people in power, so audiences can make up their own minds as to what is truth.

Or, as Sands said, it is practicing a higher form of journalism in which we do more than cover the traffic accident; journalists get out and ask the hard questions.

“We do have a higher purpose,” Sands said. “When we ignore fairness, we are ignoring 250-plus years of history and our job requirements. We’re supposed to ask the hard questions and find the answers.”

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