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Fairness and balance in the media

By John Wright - posted Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Most of us would surely be inclined to say that fairness and objectivity in the media, and public discussion generally, is desirable. But there are often very powerful reasons why it is in the interests of individual contributors to public debate to be neither fair nor objective.

Frequently - perhaps typically - people enter in to public discussion for a reason: they have some cause they want to "push". A person's motive for entering in to public debate in the first place is often because they wish to see their particular cause advanced in our society. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that: it is a part of the way a healthy, open society develops. But the contributor to debate will therefore have an incentive to present one side of a debate (their own side) in a more favorable light, and to present the other side less favorably.

Individual participants in a public debate have an interest in presenting their own side as favorably as they can: but, arguably, it is in the interests of society as a whole for public discussion to be fair and balanced. A fair and balanced discussion would seem to be the best way for members of the general public to make up their mind in an informed way.


And so we have a potential "conflict of interests" between individual participants in public debate, and the public at large. Individual participants will (quite likely) have an interest in the discussion being biased in their own favor; the public as a whole will have an interest in it being fair and balanced.

One perhaps initially tempting response to this might be to suggest a laissez- faire approach. Perhaps, if all individuals are left free to express themselves (biases and all) the full range of views will all get a hearing? There may, for example, be some people expressing “far left” views. But, it is to be hoped, there will be also an equal number expressing “far right” views. Balance, it may be suggested, will exist at the level of the whole of society, even though individual contributions to it may be very biased and unfair.

There are, however, a number of problems with this suggestion, some of them very familiar. Perhaps, in a society in which media are mostly owned and controlled by a wealthy minority, views congenial to that wealthy minority will be favored, to the detriment of overall balance. Or discussion may be skewed to the noisiest, or most superficially plausible, or those with the best “attention grabbing” techniques. But perhaps the most serious danger is that if fairness or balance were not sought in individual contributions to public discussion, then extreme bias and prejudice would be freer to flourish. Under such conditions society might fragment in to hostile groups that do not productively communicate, and which regard each other more as “the enemy” than as collaborators in the task of working out what is best for society. Arguably, the U.S. is showing signs of fragmenting in this way.

In view of this it might, then, be suggested that media outlets (or at least those of sufficient size) be compelled by law to exhibit a degree of balance. Justice Ray Finkelstein recently made a suggestion of this sort in his report on Australian media. But this has its problems, too. One practical difficulty is that an outlet might achieve the superficial appearance of balance by deliberately publishing only bad articles supporting “the other side”. But there is also a difficulty of principle.

In our society it will surely happen from time to time that a group of persons might get together to act as advocates for a cause in which they believe. On the face of it, this would seem to be one of the freedoms we would expect people to have in a liberal society. Of course, requiring such groups to publish opposing views does not prevent them from also publishing their own favored views. But it would seem to take away from them the freedom to act as a group advocating the cause in which they believe. They would instead become a group “reporting on both sides of the debate”.

And so, perhaps another approach is needed. I suggest that a (partial) solution to the problem might be to have media outlets (or sufficiently large ones) be given a fairness rating. This would not prevent groups from acting as advocates for a cause in which they believe: they would still be free to be to do so. It is just that the public would be made aware that what they were getting was, perhaps, a biased or slanted perspective. And so, there would be an incentive on all (large) media outlets to be fair and balanced. This would, at least to some extent, tend to reduce the risk of extreme biases developing, and of society fragmenting in to mutually hostile groups.


Of course, any agency with the job of assessing the fairness of media outlets would need to be independent of the government of the day, and other powerful influences. But, unless a totally laissez faire approach is adopted, all solutions will have the problem of securing the independence of the monitoring body.

The idea of fairness ratings for media outlets is one, I think, that deserves consideration. 

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About the Author

John Wright lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. He has published books in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and ethical issues of economic rationalism.

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