What is “Fair” News Coverage?

In the current hyper-partisan atmosphere in politics, television reporting seems to fall into one of two categories. You have networks that actively promote partisanship (such as the “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel). And you have networks that are so afraid to take a position on anything that they say essentially nothing of value. This left me wondering: When it comes to media reporting, notably on television, what is a fair definition of “fair”?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Easier to do is to cite what is not fair. Hopefully, by avoiding these three pitfalls, the networks will find their way to “fair.”

• Having opposing analysts does not mean you’re being fair. Especially on cable news networks, a news story is often followed by two talking heads, an analyst from the left and another from the right, offering their opposing views of the story in question.

If the two analysts are calm, rational, intelligent people — and are encouraged to present their positions in a calm, rational and intelligent manner — this approach has the potential to offer worthwhile insights. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case. Rather, what you typically get are two partisans doing their best to spin and distort the story to the best advantage of their own political party (Republican vs. Democrat). Rarely does the network commentator challenge the analysts as to the veracity of their statements.

Instead of seeking thoughtful commentary, the networks seem to encourage disparaging remarks, combative attacks, and heated debate. It all translates into higher ratings. And ratings are the name of the game.

And all of this assumes a best case scenario. It assumes that the network in question does not start off with an agenda to declare one side or the other as the winner, regardless of the facts. As we are all too well aware, this is not the case with stations such as Fox and MSNBC.

• Citing pros and cons of each position (or falsehoods stated by each candidate) does not lead to fairness. When discussing an issue where Republicans and Democrats have opposing views, a network may cite a list of pros and cons for each side, being careful to offer an equal number of points for each position. What is missing from such lists is any attempt to evaluate the relative importance of each claim or its degree of distortion. Which side, if any, ultimately has the stronger case? The networks do not say. In fact, some networks argue that to imply one side has a stronger case than the other is exactly what they should not do — doing so would indicate a lack of impartiality. While there is a grain of truth to this plea (more about this is a moment), the networks hardly wind up being impartial.

By always presenting an equal number of pro and con arguments for each side, the implication is that there are always an equal number of such arguments to be made. And that the arguments all have equal weight. We all know this is not always the case. If cable news networks were around during the Civil War, would they have covered the debate in such a way as to suggest that the pros vs. cons of slavery were equal? Probably. But is that really what we mean by being fair? I hope not.

The worst examples of this false fairness are with political campaign coverage. During an election campaign, news networks may evaluate campaign speeches, citing where each candidate either made an accurate statement or a false one. Again, such reports almost always cite an equal number of true vs. false claims by each candidate. Too often, this means you wind up hearing something like this:

“Candidate A said that the government spent 2.25 billions dollars on this program last year. Actually, the government spent 2.26 billion dollars. As for Candidate B, he claims that the program reduces taxes primarily for low income wage-earners. However, several studies show that the program primarily reduces taxes for people earning over $200,000 a year. So each candidate has occasionally been less than truthful on their campaign trails.”

The implication is that a relatively minor error in dollars spent is somehow equally egregious to stating the complete opposite of the truth. The networks choose to gloss over the obvious qualitative differences in order to wind up with a balanced checklist. Often, this is because they are motivated by fear of being cast as having a “liberal” or “conservative” bias. However, this winds up encouraging viewers to conclude that both candidates are equally guilty of misstatements, leading to a cynical “a pox on both their houses.”

A dispassionate analysis of the facts could lead to a reasonable conclusion that one side is more in error than the other. If so, a news report should reflect this. Stating such conclusions does not mean the report is partisan or editorializing; it means the report accurate.

[A sign of progress: I recently heard (on NPR's On the Media) that ABC's This Week has teamed with PolitiFact to monitor the truthfulness/accuracy of the show's guests. This should be interesting.]

• Listener surveys don’t qualify as fair. In these days where all the buzz is about social media, the current trend is to ask for listener feedback. “Tell us what you think,” the newscaster implores. Do so via Twitter, FaceBook or email. At some point, the programs typically reports the results (e.g., “53% of our respondents support Arizona’s new immigration law” or whatever).

While there is some value in knowing what your neighbors are thinking (even when “neighbors” are defined as the entire rest of the country), it is too easy to overstate the importance of this information, especially as gathered in this way.

First, these are not scientific samples. The respondents only include people who were listening to the station at the time and were sufficiently motivated to offer a reply. Does this actually represent what the “American people” as a whole are thinking? Almost certainly not. But this is rarely made clear.

Second, there is no guarantee that responders are the least bit informed about the issue. Quite the opposite, people often have strong opinions on matters of which they have no factual knowledge. From a political perspective, it may be interesting to know that X% of Americans do not believe that Obama was born in the United States. It could have a bearing on how people plan to vote. However, whatever X% turns out to be, it has no bearing on the truth or falseness of claims as to where Obama was born. Obama does not become more or less likely to have been born in the United States as result of the ups and downs of such phony polls. Obama’s birth and citizenship is a matter of established fact, regardless of what a survey may reveal about the misconceptions of some Americans. Too often, this distinction is lost when discussing such results.

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