of objectivity, depersonalisation and balance, tend to transform
the news into a series of quotes and comments from a remarkably
small number of sources. Balance means ensuring that statements
by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements
by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other
way round. For example, despite claims of anti-nuclear media bias
by the nuclear industry, a FAIR study of news clippings collected
by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over a five month period found
that no news articles cited anti-nuclear views without also citing
a pro-nuclear response whereas 27% of articles cited only pro-nuclear
views. (It also found that 72% of editorials and 56% of opinion
columns were pro-nuclear.) (Grossman 1992)
Balance means getting opinions
from both sides (where the journalist recognises two sides) but
not necessarily covering the spectrum of opinion. More radical
opinions are generally left out. The US EPA is sometimes used
as an environmental source in one story and as an anti-environmentalist
source in another (Spencer 1992, p. 17). Nor are opposing opinions
always treated equally in terms of space, positioning and framing
(Parenti 1986, p. 218).
Balance does not guarantee neutrality
even when sources are treated fairly, since the choice of balancing
sources can be distorted. FAIR gives the example of a Nightline
show where radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh argued that volcanoes
are the major cause of ozone depletion. (This is an example of
a growing talk show tradition of "featuring right-wing ideologues
as experts on scientific questions." ) Limbaugh was 'balanced'
with then Senator Al Gore "who argued that the answer to ecological
problems was more 'capitalism'."(Spencer 1992, p. 18)
"In practice objectivity means
journalists have to interview legitimate elites on all major sides
of a dispute" and this gives the powerful guaranteed access to
the media no matter how flimsy their argument or how transparently
self-interested (Entman 1989, pp. 37-8). In their attempts to
be balanced on a scientific story, journalists may use any opposing
view "no matter how little credence it may get from the larger
scientific community" (Jim Naureckas quoted in Ruben 1994). But
giving equal treatment to two sides of an argument can often provide
a misleading impression. Phil Shabecoff, former environment reporter
for the New York Times, gives the example of views on climate
the findings of the International
Panel on Climate Changea body of some 200 eminent scientists
named by the World Meteorological Organization of the United Nations
Environment Programis generally considered to be the consensus
position. But I have seen a number of stories where its conclusions
are given equal or less weight than those of a single scientist
who has done little or no significant peer-review research in
the field, is rarely, if ever, cited on those issues in the scientific
literature, and whose publication is funded by a fossil-fuel industry
group with an obvious axe to grind.... for a reporter, at this
stage of the debate, to give equal or even more weight to that
lonely scientist with suspect credentials is, in my view, taking
sides in the debate. (Shabecoff 1994)
Paul Rauber (1996) gives another
example of how equal treatment can give a misleading impression,
in the environmental magazine, Sierra:
Hundreds, maybe thousands
of people gather to call for the factory to stop polluting or
for the clearcutting to end. In one little corner, half a dozen
loggers or millworkers hold a counter-demonstration on company
time. That night on the evening news, both sides get equal coverage.
M. 1989, Democracy Without
Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics (New York:
Oxford University Press).
Grossman, Karl, 1992, 'Survey
Says: Newspapers Boost Nukes', Extra! March.
Parenti, Michael, 1986, Inventing
Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media (New York: St Martin's
Paul, 1996, The
Sierra, Vol. 81, No. Sept-Oct.
Barbara, 1994, Back
Action Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 4.
Phil, 1994, Mudslinging
on the Earth-beat, The
Amicus Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4.
Spencer, Miranda, 1992, 'U. S.
Environmental Reporting: The Big Fizzle:', Extra! April/May.
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