US election: Is media balance always fair?

2:28 pm on 11 August 2016

Opinion - Donald Trump has not been too happy with the media lately. He complained on Tuesday that they misinterpreted his unsubtle allusion that gun rights voters might have other ways to stop Hillary Clinton than at the ballot box. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump made his gun rights comments at a rally in North Carolina. Photo: AFP

The list of assassinated American politicians] is long, and there have been attempts against all recent presidents.

But a candidate publicly alluding to the assassination of their competition as a plan B has been unthinkable, until now.

The New York Times, ever holding to impartial balance, reported that Mr Trump had "issued what some saw as a threat to Hillary Clinton".

They outlined the facts and let others be outraged by or make apologies for them. I'm not sure how they stay so calm. Imagine someone saying that in a New Zealand campaign.

Accuracy. Balance. Fairness. These are things held sacred enough by traditional media to be written with capital letters.

But balance and fairness are sometimes used as weapons against media accuracy. Sometimes the media has to choose between impartial and true.

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The New York Times reported that Donald Trump had "issued what some saw as a threat to Hillary Clinton". Photo: 123rf

There is a long tradition of using the media's own principles against it.

The strategy is demonstrated by documents from the tobacco company Philip Morris outlining media tactics for the second-hand smoke debate.

A strategy was campaigning "to maintain balance" in order to gain media access for a "cadre of third-party spokespersons" who would create "considerable reasonable doubt" over the scientific case. Dastardly, but clever.

The tactic is useful, because the easiest way to achieve apparent balance is to give airtime or column inches to someone from the 'other side' of the debate without consideration as to whether such balance actually detracts from accuracy and fairness - or whether any substantive debate actually exists.

This was powerfully demonstrated by Boykoff and Boykoff, who analysed US media coverage of climate science and found a "balance of the outliers", which can result in small outlier groups having their views hugely amplified.

The BBC fell into the same trap over the MMR vaccination autism link story.

New Zealand is not immune. Local media has also struggled in covering climate change, fluoridation and vaccines.

It happens most often when the 'debate' is over a matter of science. Inevitably, knowledge achieved through rational inquiry sometimes clashes with other doctrines or motives.

The opposition is sometimes faith-based but can also arise from bigotry, prejudice, systemic distrust, cognitive dissonance or contrarianism. Sometimes facts clash with commercial motives or political ambition.

I am assuming here that a logical, rational approach to understanding the world is a legitimate one, and that we can determine conclusions about the world, which we call facts.

When facts clash with opinions, debate becomes asymmetric and balance becomes inappropriate - and can create an unintended bias that favours opinion.

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Fact-checking websites have been run off their feet trying to keep up with Donald Trump's statements. Photo: AFP

It must be a real struggle to professionally cover a campaign like Trump's, where truth is an afterthought, crowds cheer lies, and outlets are banned for unfavourable reporting.

I genuinely feel for the editors. How do you attempt to be impartial when one side is both attacking you and making statements so inaccurate they seem to come from an alternate reality?

Do you call it out or attempt impartiality? Do you write scathing op-eds as the Washington Post has and then attempt even-handed reportage? The latter seems an increasingly vain struggle.

The New York Times has created its own fact-checking page, rather than rely on the non-profits Snopes, FactCheck, or Politifact, which are all worked off their feet this year.

Both the Times and the Post are among outlets increasingly prepared to call out a lie, which is surely the news media's job.

But for a long time journalists have been timid about doing so, treating all points of view as equally valid, regardless of validity or relative weight. Or retreating to reporting politics as sport: nice riposte, touché!

Trump may be performing a service this year by forcing journalists to stand for accuracy. Balance about facts is oxymoronic.

Lessons for local media

There may be lessons for New Zealand here too.

  • New Zealand politicians also complain to or about the media as a way of making journalists nervous about how or how much they cover them. Watch for it.
  • RNZ's own editorial policy says factual programmes must "conform to reality, be in context and not in any way misleading or false". It's a high standard and we should expect no less from politicians and call them on it.
  • Oh, and never fall for a fake debate between facts and opinion.

*Phil Smith is a journalist who has wasted his adult life revelling in the entertaining minutiae of American politics and culture. He once shared a lunch of rare bison steaks with Jimmy Carter.