Part of my training is in journalism, so I always maintain a strong interest in topics relating to the media and their impact on our daily lives. Back then, when I worked as an arts reporter, theories such as agenda setting, framing and the "scary world" felt rather remote from my beloved theatres, musicals, concerts and literature. However, now, as a writer and so-called "independent scholar", I constantly feel a need to convey my content appropriately for the Constant Reader, particularly online.
As I attended the "Media Makers: Fair and Balanced?" session at the Melbourne Writers Festival, a memory about the classic Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) surfaced. In the beginning of this entertaining film, Professor Jones announced to his class that the duty of archaeologists is to find FACTS, not truths. This indeed applies to journalism as well. Particularly in this day and age when "every man and his dog" can assign themselves the role of "citizen journalist", the fine line between opinion and judgement is increasingly blurred. While (most) media professionals uphold and safeguard a code of ethics, how can emerging journalists be trained to conduct fair and balanced reporting?
This session was hosted by Penny Fannin, a journalist and science communicator. In conversation with her were Gay Alcorn, Melbourne editor of Guardian Australia, and Christine Kenneally, who writes on science, language and culture and whose books The First Word: The Search for the Origins of language (2007) and The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures (2014) are both excellent reads. The issue being discussed was "false balance", where "balanced reporting...can mean minority views are disproportionately represented on topics like climate change, vaccination and migration". Other controversial topics include genetically modified foods, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.
Both Alcorn and Kenneally agreed that balanced reporting is not a bad thing. Journalists strive to present the views from both sides so that the audiences can make their own decision on public issues such as those listed above. However, because too many things in life do not have a "middle ground", journalists should endeavour to find the facts, not a balance.
Particularly when covering topics they do not understand, many journalists have the good intention not to act as anybody's advocate. It is a survival strategy, a way to protect themselves from being accused of bias. However, in the same way that statistics can lie, any distortion of information may seriously impact on both policies and public opinions. Consequences can be dire if journalists share information not for the purpose of benefiting the public but to "protect" them from what is perceived to be stereotypes or biases.
When asked about social media, where facts are often contrasted with opinions, Keneally explained that both are presented for the benefit of the majority of the public. Precisely because opinions can become social movements, the focus of such contrast is on equal civil rights. The risk faced by journalists, however, is whether consensus should be easily accepted. To search for the facts is to challenge the status quo. No questions are too hard or too complicated. Everything can be and should be scrutinised, even when you fear that you may look stupid by asking questions.
Alcorn asserted that journalists should challenge whenever the government is "telling the truth" by finding the facts. Meanwhile, Keneally encouraged all journalists to challenge the orthodox, to confront the consensus. to engage, and to criticise. Particularly in science, she said, journalists need to take an extra step and find the facts that will help people to make their own judgement. "Don't just replicate! Not even when there's pressure of the deadline and a lack of time and energy!"
When asked about social media and their impact on fair and balanced reporting, both Alcorn and Keneally agreed that "false balance" occurs whenever minority voices are amplified and made to last longer through repeated coverage. Even traditional media may try to attract traffic by covering controversial issues online, therefore helping to prolong and further complicate the controversies themselves. Luckily, as pointed out by Alcorn, social media users are very good at picking up "false balance" when it comes into existence. There are so many experts out there who can tell you are wrong!
As the session concluded, Alcorn and Keneally encouraged all journalists to keep trying, to keep asking questions and closing the gaps, and to strive to give readers what they want and need without losing that previous human essence in it. Find someone you can trust and ask the necessary questions, especially someone who is not afraid of reading the statistics right. There is so much information and so little time, but if you seek the facts, then you shall find them.