Balance, Objectivity, and Passing Judgment

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 30, 2007

In today's Hall Marks blog, Nicole MacIntyre addresses a reader's complaint that her newspaper report on the proposed pesticide by-law 'stirs the pot' instead of offering solutions.

MacIntyre responds:

I could have chosen in today's story to write about all the health benefits on not using pesticide and provided tips on Imageshow to weed without chemicals. But would that have been doing my job? I argue no. As a reporter I need to tell the community what is happening at City Hall without letting my personal bias get in the way. I certainly have a personal opinion on the ban, but you should never know that from reading my stories. I should be presenting both sides of the argument to allow readers to make their own decision.

It's a fair position to take, and I'm glad that there is still a line between straight journalism and 'advocacy' journalism like much of the content on RTH (I believe each form plays an important role).

At the same time, the idea that a journalist should simply 'present both sides of the argument to allow readers to make their own decision' is problematic.

Balance vs. Analysis

It can easily slide into the false journalistic value of "balance", in the sense that the two sides of an argument are given equal weight regardless of the relative merits of their arguments.

For example, when Councillor Lloyd Ferguson says, "You're going to fine people for taking care of their lawns," he's being disingenuous at best, distorting the issue and attacking a straw man for emotional appeal. Doesn't the journalist covering the subject have a responsibility to identify these argumentative fallacies when public figures try to employ them?

I think it's important for the news media to subject both sides to critical, objective analysis so readers can draw informed conclusions.

It's as if a group of people formed a new Flat Earth Society and petitioned the government to change the science curriculum, and the news headline read: "Opinions differ as to shape of earth".

False Alternative

Also, the conflict around the proposed pesticide ban is more complex than merely a binary struggle between environmentalists and lawn companies.

Many companies can see where the political climate is going and are embracing pesticide-free products and techniques to make their business models forward-compatible.

Oversimplifying the diversity of opinions and the dynamic nature of business to adapt to changes in its regulatory environment tends to reinforce the false alternative between business and the environment, as if one has no alternative but to choose between them.

(In an analogous case, the automakers with the strongest growth and highest profits worldwide are those companies operating under some of the strictest regulations and producing the cleanest, most fuel-efficient automobiles. Clearly, regulation for environmental safety is not necessarily bad for business.)

Not Taking Sides

I don't think MacIntrye is "stirring the pot" or "promoting a war", but in a debate as "likely to be as lively" as this, it's especially important to cut through the heat and drama and assess the actual claims on their merits.

Noting, for example, that one side in a debate has a strong case with plenty of evidence and the other side is relying mainly on ideology and FUD is not the same as taking sides.

In any case, thanks to MacIntyre for offering a 'peek behind the curtain' at the kinds of issues that journalists struggle with in trying to remain professional and objective. It's a lot easier for armchair media theorists to prescribe what journalists should be doing than it is for the journalists themselves to do their job.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted May 30, 2007 at 15:46:03

Hey Ryan,

I know this is a favourite topic of yours :) I read through Nicole McIntyre's article and I thought it was excellently done. Very 'balanced'. It's nice to see an environmental story which isn't slanted against 'environmentalists' (as if you could even label environmentally concious people this way anymore - aren't we all environmentalists...?)

I don't quite follow your comments wrt 'Balance vs Analysis' though. I assume you are suggesting that the journalist should have a good understand of the complexity of his/her subject matter and should explore the issue in depth, accordingly? This would have to be done by citing independant sources/ref material in the usual journalistic fashion then? My concern here would be related to how much expertise and interest the journalist really has on the subject. In my experience as a Spec reader, Hamilton can be something of an intellectual vacuum at times - especially if City Councilors are getting the lion share of the quotes and only selective sources are dug up to 'balance' or corroborate their often uninformed 'facts' How can I trust a journalist to look beyond the easy quotes and truly represent the complexities of the story? I know of at least one Spec reporter who was given a bureau in which they had very little interest and knowledge. Do I want them to conduct this analysis on my behalf?

After years of reading the Spec the one thing that I tired of was the 'lazy' reporting. Complex arguments would boiled down to tabloid rag black and white articles with good and bad, right and wrong. Complex issues were often ignored altogether.

I remember the first time I spoke to you was after reading one of your sprawl peices in the OpEd section. I thought 'at last! Someone who understand this stuff!' Why had no Spec reorters covered this issue before then?

I don't blame the journalists, having gotten to know a few I know that they are more than engaged and intelligent enough to provide the right balance and analysis on a variety of Hamilton related subjects, I can only assume the direction/article selection wasn't there.

How many 'in-depth' articles does the Spec produce these days? (I don't read it anymore). I remember one particularly dry period when Hamilton suffered through the Aerotropolis 'debates' and several other key issues (including the on-going sprawl which has barely been 'intelligently addressed' by the paper). After months of shallow trite on downtown crimes and car crashes we were finally treated to an in-depth report fires!

Holy crap, the car-fire series was very well done but for crying out loud the whole city was on fire and all the local paper could address was this!

Same applies to Red-Hill. I moved to the Hammer at the tail end of this debacle but from what I saw there was very little intelligent analysis in the paper about this.

I now read the Toronto Star and although it is not without it's short-comings we are very lucky here in Toronto to get a frequent smattering of sprawl related stories and urban planning discussions covered by journalists who are very clearly knowledgable, interested in their subject matter, and supported by their editors (ie given the right profile and column space).

I feel much more informed as a result.

I understand your complimentary tone in relation to Nicole McIntyre's peice, but overall I think you need to ask yourself just how much the Spec has improved. While it's readers may be drawn to it out of loyalty and it's historical connections to the town, and while it is, IMO, a funamentally honest and better class of paper, it still has significant short-comings when it comes to addressing Hamilton's critical issues in a timely, in-depth and intelligent manner.



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