A seemingly common criticism of the media is that its coverage isn't balanced. This begs the question - what would truly balanced coverage look like? Discussing the positive aspects of an issue 50% of the time and the negative aspects of an issue the other 50% isn't necessarily balanced, after all. Car crashes are a good example of this. When they're discussed in the news, 50% of the alloted talk time isn't dedicated to how the world has benefited from them. So what would truly balanced coverage of (as an example) the Iraq war look like? If it isn't 50/50, what would it be? And, of course, how would we even recognize it when we saw it? Just because something "feels" balanced, doesn't necessarily mean that it is.

This is an excellent and hard question. Balanced coverage is a problem in science journalism, since there sometimes is a tendency to go for a 50/50 approach, even if one side of the debate is much better supported by the scientific evidence than the other. In that case 50/50 seems clearly unbalanced, and it looks like one might be able to come up with some principle of balance in terms of the weight of evidence or the weight of opinion in the qualified professional community. Of course this won't be easy to work in practice, but at least there are some principles one might have. In the case of political balance, the situation is much more difficult: difficult to work out what 'balance' means and, as you say, difficult to see how we could recognize balance and imbalance, even if we knew in the abstract what they mean.

My colleague Carrie Figdor, who turned to philosophy after a successful career for many years as a journalist, has this to say in response:

"It’s probably too simple to think of balance in terms of a ratio; it doesn’t require us, for example, to give voice at all, let alone equal time, to Holocaust deniers in a report on World War II genocide. To paraphrase Paul Krugman: given what we know, would that even have been ethical? (See his May 2002 response to critics, On Being Partisan, here). Being balanced is just one aspect of a complex professional norm of being objective, which also includes, at least, using neutral language, presenting views fairly, being non-partisan and just presenting facts, without inserting commentary. (For example, what do you call the structure going up roughly between Israel and the West Bank? The Israelis like the friendly “fence”, the Palestinians like the sinister “wall”; many media have settled on “barrier”. It’s still an open question as to what exactly should we call the situation in Iraq: is it “civil war”, “sectarian violence”, “Sunni insurgency” or something else?) So a particular report, or a particular media outlet, may violate the objectivity norm not because it’s unbalanced, but because it does not satisfy some other aspect(s) of the norm (e.g. an article in The Nation may be balanced but partisan; a Fox News story may be balanced, but The O’Reilly Factor is not.)

The norm of being balanced (as a first approximation) requires giving expression to the relevant views on an issue and including the relevant facts. Holocaust deniers are irrelevant because of the facts; the same goes for global warming (political pressure notwithstanding). There is no algorithm to determine what is relevant; hence the difficulty of giving a philosophical robust, strict definition. It’s also important to keep in mind that the news is highly revisable; so balance is relative to what’s known and who’s accessible at a time (i.e. by deadline), and it is not necessarily individualistic (e.g. balance may be satisfied by several stories, not one).

As a heuristic device, though, if someone’s ox is being gored, then the ox will bellow. Reporters and editors do pay attention to public criticism and revise their coverage in consequence. For example, an editor friend at the Los Angeles Times said the paper responded to complaints that the Times didn’t print enough good news from Iraq by seeking out such stories. He added, however, that it is hard to continue to make room for such stories, because from a news point of view the story in Iraq just is that the country is unstable; building a school does not make a difference to the story, while bombing a mosque does. If stability does increase, that would be a change in the story.

The fundamental difficulty may lie with determining what counts as news to begin with, since figuring out which views or facts should be included in a balanced report will be a function of which events count as newsworthy and which of their aspects are deemed most important. If the story, in the largest sense, is that Iraq is highly unstable, then that determines which views and facts are relevant. That’s why a balanced report on Iraq won’t be good/bad in a 50-50 ratio."

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