What Is Balance In Journalism?

Find out “what is balance in journalism” and why it’s an important topic in the industry today.

In journalism, the term ‘balance’ refers to a journalist’s impartiality and fairness when presenting a story. Specifically, it refers to the idea that journalists should present all sides of an issue that they are reporting on without any supporting bias.

Consider a referendum on changing healthcare public policy. Here, balance dictates that the journalist should present both the supporters of the change and the supporters of keeping the status quo equally and without bias.

Certain types of journalism, such as advocacy journalism and yellow journalism, present particular viewpoints or agendas within their reporting. Thus, they are good examples of reporting that may lack balance as only one side of the story is being presented.

The idea of balance is touched upon in the American Society of Newspaper Editors Code of Ethics. Here, they stated that “every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly”.

Acclaimed American journalist, Jack Shafer, gave an insight into how balance is viewed in the profession in his Politico column. He wrote: “The idea that reporters should aspire to a Zen-like equilibrium that gives all “stakeholders” a say in its shaping has become a tenet of the profession’s religion”.

What Is False Balance?

What is balance in journalism?
False balance was defined in The New York Times as “the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side”.

It is far easier to define balance in journalism than it is to determine whether balance is always necessary or even ethical. One of the key issues regarding balance in the press is the idea of false balance.

False balance was defined in The New York Times as “the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side”.

Fairness and impartiality are generally considered among the key principles of journalism, hence the profession’s affinity to the idea of balance. However, there is a question of whether providing the other side of an argument is always the best journalistic practice.

Particularly when the other side of the argument presents falsehoods and brandishes them as facts. In the 1970s, author and producer David Elstein wrote about the dilemma. He discussed an issue a TV programme producer faced when making a documentary about smoking. Even at the time, there was overwhelming evidence that smoking was harmful to health. However, if balance was to be given in that instance, those who argued that smoking didn’t damage one’s health would be given equal coverage to those presenting the truth.

‘Bothsidesism’ And The Truth

There has been much discussion regarding balance and the news coverage of climate change today. One example is where Northwestern University published an article commenting on the news media’s emphasis on balance, when it’s questionable if both sides of the story deserve equal time in his instance. It read:

“Bothsidesism — also referred to as false balance reporting — can damage the public’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction and lead audiences to doubt the scientific consensus on pressing societal challenges like climate change”.

One of the problems associated with avoiding journalistic balance, is the decision around whose point of view and argument has news value and whose doesn’t. In this case, there is also the question of whether or not objective journalism is at play, as the reporter and editors who decide are clearly not demonstrating impartiality.

However, one of the other key principles of journalism ethics is to act in the public’s interest. And if, like stated by The Ethical Journalism Network, the public interest is “about the common good, the general welfare and the security and well-being of everyone in the community”, then providing balance where false claims are platformed is not serving that remit.

Especially when there is a global warming emergency, and climate change deniers can spread misinformation that affects the public’s views and actions. David Robert Grimes touched on this complex subject in an article he wrote for The Guardian. He said:

“Impartiality lies at the very heart of good journalism – avoiding bias is something on which respectable media outlets pride themselves. This is laudable, as robust debate is vital for a healthy media and, by extension, an informed society.

“But when the weight of scientific evidence points incontrovertibly one direction, doggedly reporting both “sides” equally can result in misleading coverage”.

Maintaining accuracy, inclusion and impartiality in journalism creates balance and is a sensible view. However, balance should not be prioritized over a story’s truth and facts. When it is, news organizations are creating false balance and false balance isn’t balance at all.

Politics And Journalistic Balance

Of course, it’s not just scientific news reports where the idea of balance has been called into question. For instance, the BBC has been called out for its dedication to impartiality and balance, with suggestions that it has been wrong in giving equal weight to opposing viewpoints in the past. One example is its coverage of the Brexit election.

Here, former presenter of current affairs program Newsnight, Emily Maitlis, pointed out different views need to be presented with an idea of their legitimacy. She discussed how presenting viewpoints equally can result in a sort of false equivalence rather than the intended balance. She said:

“It might take our producers five minutes to find 60 economists who feared Brexit and five hours to find a sole voice who espoused it. But by the time we went on air we simply had one of each; we presented this unequal effort to our audience as balance. It wasn’t . . . The ungainly name for this myopic style of journalism: ‘both-sideism’, which talks to the way it reaches a superficial balance while obscuring a deeper truth.”

US Politics And Balance

Christiane Amanpour
Christiane Amanpour via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presidency and attacks on news coverage and mainstream media made the idea of journalistic objectivity a much-talked-about subject. Where supporters of the Republican former president would (at best) argue that the negative news coverage surrounding the president is not balanced, critics of Trump have argued that his use of misinformation has made the idea of balance redundant.

For instance, Christiane Amanpour discussed balance in relation to both political parties’ 2016 presidential candidates in a speech delivered at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York on 22 November 2016. She said: “It appeared much of the media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality, and crucially, truth”.

The British-Iranian journalist added that neutrality may not be the way forward when the very idea of truth is attacked. She added: “I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth”.

In a range of Tweets on the subject, Washington Post columnist, Perry Bacon Jr, offered an explanation for the reverence balance is held in when it comes to reporting on political news stories in the US. He tweeted that “the press is convinced a 50/50 country much be covered in a 50/50 way”.

Thus, balance in political journalism is a hot topic. Whether balance should continue to be one of the key priorities when reporting a news story is up for debate. If you report on that debate, listen to both sides. If you like this article and want to advance your career beyond the newsroom, check out our guide to the best journalism tools.