All too often—during cable news interviews and throughout newspaper articles—well-intentioned commentators and journalists fool individuals with the elementary notion of representing both sides of an issue. On CNN and Fox (and other networks) two diametrically opposed guests are consistently asked to appear together, receiving questions and disagreeing with each other, selected simply because they represented opposite sides. Viewers then believe the network is being fair by having “both sides” represented.
It’s not merely on cable news. Consistently, newspapers and other forms of written media, describe issues shared by both sides, many times without actually revealing the facts of a situation. (Refer to any debate on the existence of climate change.) Mainstream journalists lazily make the all too common assumption that a simple representation of both sides, rather than a clear explanation of what is true and what is not true, is the ultimate path to objectivity. This standard of journalism is not one we should accept, yet it is perhaps the most prevalent way stories are transmitted to the public.
The idea that stories must have two sides regardless of the facts of a situation is called false balance. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, in her second column on the job, took up this issue. Recently the Times has been accused of inflating arguments of those in favor of Voter ID referendums across the country. In these cases, many wrote to the public editor stating their concern that facts were not given equal weight.
Sullivan points to a more engaged public as a driver for this change. Despite prodigious, omnipresent media organizations that constantly produce content, she believes individuals are becoming uneasy, searching for more in the news. Blogs and opinion writers in many cases are filling the void, as well as long-form media elites, like Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair.
“The Newsroom,” a new HBO series, even sets this as a central focus to its show. The show follows a fictional cable news network as actual events in the United States occurred. The host—a Matt Lauer-like, opinion-less, talking head— eventually pointed out, on-air, lies Tea Party members were spreading with their rallies soon after the financial crisis. Instead of simply bringing on a liberal and a tea party member, he stated the facts, angering many who were expecting simple representation of both sides, but fulfilling his journalistic duty of appropriately informing the public.
It is crucial that this practice be carried over in our actual news outlets, so it is comforting that the Times is taking proactive steps to usher in journalism the way it should be done.
Here at the Concordian, we must do the same. While this most certainly can be accomplished throughout news stories in the paper, a new addition to the paper has the ability to do even more.
Readers of last week’s Concordian may have noticed the addition of an editorial in the Opinions page. The editorial represents the opinions of the paper as a whole, and as a result, carries a lot of weight, with contributions from the paper’s editors. The editors must remember that it is their duty to fulfill these practices, to inform readers of the truth, not simply a rehashing of opposing stories. Indeed, this is the ultimate goal of what we do—informing, not merely sharing.
Matt Hansen, a fourth-year student, writes The People’s Republic of Matt, a politics column in Opinions. He double majors in political science and sociology at Concordia. On Twitter: @MattHansen