In the outstanding documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, much praise is given by marketing directors to the Fox News network's advertising slogan, "Fair and Balanced". After all, who doesn't want a fair and balanced news source? It's important to hear both sides, no?
Of course, anyone with eyes and ears can see that if it is one thing Fox News is not, it is neither "fair" or "balanced." However, neither is the rest of the media. And what a horrible thing the media would be if that was its sole aim.
The problem with being fair and balanced is that those words are very subjective. Fair to whom? How do you measure "fair"? And should one really be fair to a side that has less evidence?
In the frequently revised volume Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal hold that "journalism's first obligation is to the truth." And they aren't alone. Kovach and Rosenthal found that nearly 8 out of 10 journalists consider the truth to be the most important aspect of their profession. However, in a media where being balanced is held above being accurate and factual, this obligation is subverted.
Let's use a fictional example involving the semi-recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Let's say that, in the investigation, the overwhelming majority of the evidence found would seem to blame the collapse on internal water damage, a sad reality of leaving pot holes and cracks open on bridges.
In an quick effort to cover their ass, the folks in charge of Minnesota infrastructure claim that water damage is a ridiculous reason, it's more likely that an earthquake caused the collapse. They have several witnesses that claim to have felt an earthquake around the time of the collapse. However, their evidence is minute.
In our fictional example, it seems obvious which side is true. However, as Winston Churchill once said, "a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."
This sentiment is only given more ground by a media that worships "fairness" and being "balanced" over the truth.
Well, but what truth? Albert Einstein used to teach that the goal of all research and learning should not be to know the "truth", but to make everything we do know less false.
Their seems to be a schism in what Americans want from their news corps. They are quick to blame journalists for not digging deeper and halting such practices as bombing the wrong country. This puts the media's job as "sense-maker", the defender of the truth in a world that is frequently trying to subvert it. CNN has recently tried to market on this demand with their "Keeping Them Honest" campaign, where authorities of all nature are investigated for fraud or trickery. In the same way, The O'Reilly Factor often totes that it is "looking out for you."
However, their is also the demand of the American people that journalists stick to the facts and nothing but them. Let's use another example to show how this might contradict the previous demand. If Tony Snow says that we are giving $13 billion in aid to Saudi Arabia, then a journalist might write "the US is giving $13 billion in aid to Saudi Arabia, White House spokesperson Tony Snow told a crowd of reporters Tuesday." In that one sentence, we have a "who", "what", "when", and "where". This kind of empty reporting lead us into war. But, if the journalist pursues the "why", a much shadier area, he may be open to criticism for not accepting the facts.
Of course, it is possible to ask "why" and stick to the facts. Newsweek had a very interesting piece on global warming deniers and who funds them (energy companies, unsurprisingly). Any journalist can tell you what global warming deniers say, but it takes more work and effort to find out why they might say it. None of the things within the Newsweek article are lies. However, global warming deniers might call it "unfair" or "unbalanced". And citizens might believe this claim.
It is time to drop the holy cow of being balanced in the media. I want the truth and the best version of it. I don't just want to know that things happened, but why they happen. Don't just tell me that there's mercury in my salmon; tell me what the hell it's doing there!
These things will not be seen until critics of the media drop the "fairness" standard or, the less-likely occurrence, journalists grow some balls. All it takes to lose a large portion of your readership as a journalist is Bill O'Reilly or the nuts on Digg saying you lean too much in one direction or another. Many journalist make avoiding criticism their primary goal. This is safe journalism. I want journalists that get their hands filthy in criticism because, if both sides of an argument hate you, you're doing something right.