Why ‘fair and balanced’ aren’t the best watchwords for journalists

CHARLES TOWN – When Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News burst on the scene back in 1996, it somehow managed to preempt widespread criticism of its overt conservative bias by adopting the slogan, “Fair and Balanced.” Many, many viewers bought into the idea, maybe at an unconscious level: How could a network that’s labeling itself “fair and balanced” be anything but?

At the time, the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine was a not-too-distant memory, and many of Fox News’ audience at the time had grown up in a nation where TV stations were required not to present equal time to opposing viewpoints, but to follow a mandate of giving “honest, equitable and balanced” coverage of all sides of an issue. The Fairness Doctrine had been the law of the land (or at least the policy of the land) since 1949 and even after it was phased out in the late 1980s, many in broadcasting continued to adhere to that way of thinking.

It’s unfortunate, we think, that Fox News has succeeded in making “fair and balanced” the standard so many citizens have come to expect from journalists.

We prefer the line of thinking in place at the Columbia Journalism Review: “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”

Getting the truth of the matter out matters more than creating “balance” and being fair to those holding opposing views on a given issue.

A stark example of why “fair and balanced” is the wrong mantra can be found by looking back at how newspapers, even The New York Times, covered the horrid scourge of lynch mobs responsible for the deaths of thousands of African-Americans more than a century ago.

Media historian David Mindich found that journalists at the time reported this news in a fair and balanced way – detailing in a detached manner the hanging and mutilation of these citizens by their fellow Americans and then included the alleged transgressions that led the mob into such acts. Lynching thus was presented in a fair way, in a balanced way but not in a way that presented the truth – the ugly act of murder by mob and the widespread practice of forcing millions of Americans to live in terror.

Brent Cunningham, a West Virginia native who has long served as a top editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, contends a focus on “fair and balanced” also can excuse lazy reporting.

Instead of dutifully taking down both sides of a story and then writing it up, he says the public needs journalists who aggressively analyze and explain what’s happening.

At the Spirit, we’ve been fortunate to have on staff since 2010 Bryan Clark, a smart, talented reporter thoroughly determined to get to the truth on issues of importance. Just last year, Bryan’s fine work brought him another coveted West Virginia Press Association plaque, this one a first-place award for in-depth/investigative reporting for his story on the incredible systemic failures that led to a young mother losing permanent custody of her two children over a missed vaccination date.

So it’s certainly not surprising that a bigger daily newspaper with far more resources has recruited Bryan to cover state issues. He’ll begin his new post at the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, later this month. The paper has a circulation of more than 22,000, making it the second-largest newspaper in the state.

If you’d like to help in formally wishing Bryan well as he heads west and to talk with him about his time in West Virginia, please make plans to join us from 4 to 7 p.m. March 19 at Paddy’s Irish Pub at 210 W. Liberty St. in Charles Town.

As always, thank you for making the Spirit part of your week.

— Robert Snyder


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One Response to EDITOR’S NOTE

  1. Robert:
    I can’t make the farewell to Bryan, but want to wish him well. He’s a great reporter, and we (and you) were lucky to have him for the years he was here. I’ve spent 30+ years in TV and video journalism and appreciate a good reporter when I see (read) one. Bryan’s reporting, on everything from county budget problems to the more personal pieces like the victimized mother you mention in the editorial, was all top notch.
    Jeff Hertrick

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