Balance is an issue that often comes up in my media training sessions. Will the journalist be biased, I’m asked, and is there anything that can be done about it? I tend to tell them it’s complicated. I’m honestly not dodging the issue.
In the UK at least, broadcasters are charged with reporting things impartially – here’s chapter and verse from Ofcom. There’s no similar law in, say, the US, which is why they can have Fox News and we can’t. Equally there is no such law covering printed matter, which is why when there’s a general election or EU referendum the papers will come out in favour of one side or the other.
All of which makes it very interesting to hear that Birkbeck College has published a paper stating that the BBC has devoted twice as much airtime to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s critics as to his supporters. This surely means the BBC is biased and therefore in breach of the charter by which it exists?
It’s tempting to think so. My answer is more complex: there’s an issue about “journalistic balance” and it’s a lot more difficult than just “publish opposite views and give them equal weight”.
What is balance?
The question has come up in relation to politics and I want to take it away from there for the moment. The name of Jeremy Corbyn tends to arouse strong emotions (I’ll come back to him later I promise). Likewise, during the EU debate, there were plenty of objections from both sides to suggest a bias against them.
So I want to have a look first at what I was taught about good journalistic practice and then look at how it may have let us down in the past. I’ll then bring it back to the present day.
In the dim and distant past…
I became a full-time journalist in 1989. It’s a fair while ago but the teaching on how to write a good news story is still imparted today: you get someone stating a view and you get the opposite view in as well.
This is of course in the case of news stories in which there is any room for controversy. “Andy Murray wins Wimbledon men’s singles for the second time” is a fairly uncontroversial statement because it’s demonstrably true. Other stories are less so. In the tech business world in which I’ve specialised over the years you might have “Study shows that outsourcing creates rather than eliminates jobs”, which would have been based on research such as this piece from Loughborough University’s Centre for Global Sourcing and Services. There is plenty of room for a “balancing quote” as we call them on whether it creates the jobs that suit the people who have just lost theirs, or whether it’s correct in every instance.
So we have balance – a 50/50 view – and if that’s in place in an article, many people will confirm that the job of an impartial journalist has been done.
Let’s look at that again and use another example.
Bad science and climate change
One of my favourite books that references journalism is Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”. It’s a collection of his Guardian articles and he continues to collate them on his website.
As an aside, one of the things to which he objects is the misuse of numbers and incomprehension of figures. So if someone says “coffee doubles a particular group’s risk of getting cancer” it makes a good headline, until you realise that it’s gone up from one person in a sample of fifty million to two people – it’s still tiny.
The other thing he hates is the idea of balance being presented as a 50/50 thing. If three times as many people believe one thing as the other, then why is a 50/50 split on television supposed to be “impartial”?
You can represent this through graphics, infographics and whatever you wish – I think I’ll leave it to comedian John Oliver, who took five minutes to look at the climate change issue. A lot of broadcasters present climate change and balance as a 50/50 issue, particularly in the US: here’s the five-minute sketch in which he nails the issue once and for all in my view:
Obviously climate change matters. However, some things matter even more.
I said I didn’t want to discuss politics (although I will in a minute) because it provokes high emotions. OK, so, kids with autism…that’s right, I’m going to discuss the MMR vaccine controversy of recent years, and more particularly the press coverage of it.
In 1998 a paper appeared in the British Medical Journal asserting that there were possible links between autism and children and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This Wikipedia page sums it up – the first couple of paragraphs tell you the basics of the story. The research was later proven to be completely fraudulent.
What concerns me as a journalist interested in balance is that there were never as many medically qualified people supporting the scare stories as there were against. However, Wikipedia, in examining the role of the press, cites numerous studies in which the press was found to be overemphasising the weight of the “experts” confirming the fraudulent research. It even quotes one source concerned that the original doctor and his followers were able to refute the science just by standing there and saying it wasn’t true. Ben Goldacre’s book is an excellent read on the subject.
This sort of reportage can’t be right. It does, however, stand up to the “one source for, one against” mantra to which a lot of journalists adhere. There’s another thing: I don’t have any research but anecdotally, when I tell people news stories are likely to carry their own view and a contrasting one, they assume that’s reasonable enough. If they’re talking about which smart watch is best or something, that’s fine, there’s no harm done. Think, though, of the increases in measles, mumps and rubella following the MMR scare. Reflect also that presidential hopeful Donald Trump still believes in the link.
This stuff matters.
Back to politics
So I come back to the coverage of Corbyn and the Birkbeck criticisms and I apply different figures. I’m hypothesising here, I don’t actually believe this stuff but bear with me a second.
The problem is apparently that the BBC is quoting twice as many people against Jeremy Corbyn as they are in his favour. Similar criticisms have been made by UKIP, pro-Europe campaigners and goodness knows who else recently, but let’s stick with Corbyn.
His MPs passed a vote of no confidence in him at the end of June, the result being 172-40. That’s a ratio of over 4:1 against him from his own elected representatives – the 2:1 against him from the BBC starts to look arguably biased in his favour as a result.
The counter-argument is that many people have joined his party since he became leader. It’s now up to around half a million according to this Guardian report. So there is an argument that the MPs may no longer be representative. We don’t know how they’ll vote in the forthcoming leadership election, but let’s be overly generous and say that the MPs have got it wrong and they all decide to vote for Corbyn in the end (I did say I didn’t believe this stuff). That’s half a million votes out of nine million who voted Labour in the last general election, and out of 47-odd million who are eligible to vote assuming last year’s figure hasn’t changed that much.
So, on what do you base the notion of balance in this instance? The MPs? The membership, which is going to vote again by September 24th and only then will we know what they actually think? Or just throw in the towel, do 50/50 as Birkbeck seems to think is ideal?
Balance is complexity
This is the bit in which I do a bit of towel-throwing myself and concede that I don’t have an answer. The MMR and climate change instances confirm that going for 50/50 and calling it balanced is trite. In principle presenting both sides should allow people to make their own minds up. In practice, an appearance on TV or in print adds weight to a view and in turn influences people. They believe there is a solid school of thought when there may only be one or two outliers.
However, suggesting the BBC is too generous to Jeremy Corbyn when it’s under fire for allowing his critics too much space is also ridiculous. That same amplification that adds weight to ridiculous views in the 50/50 system will also amplify and possibly distort other views. Reporters often see themselves outside the exchange of views and the substance of debates; in fact we become part of it, and a very high profile part as well.
If I had one message, one takeaway from this blog that I’d like everyone to consider, it would be this: asking for balance is fine, but we don’t actually know what it means. Reports, academic and otherwise, that suggest bias, tend to assume that 50/50 would be unbiased and in many cases it’s just not.
Will the journalist be biased? It’s complicated.