In the early 1980’s when I was a reporter with SBS, I interviewed a notorious racist.
Jack Van Tongeren was running for the Senate in Western Australia, and I spent an exhausting and depressing half hour in his living room, questioning and challenging him on his odious views about the evils of Asian immigration and other subjects. Ultimately, after a lot of thought and debate, we decided not to broadcast any part of the interview. We decided we would be more likely to provide free publicity for his campaign than expose it for the arrant nonsense it was.
Several years later I found myself wondering about the wisdom of that decision, when Van Tongeren was sentenced to a long jail term for his role in fire-bombing Asian-owned businesses to try and provoke a race war. The years had only made his views more extreme and led to terrible consequences. Could our interview have helped expose and discredit him?
I thought about this again when I read Greg Jericho’s excellent exploration of the failings of journalism in the latest print edition of Meanjin. In it, he rightly criticises journalists who unthinkingly provide a platform for extreme and dangerous views. But it is worth remembering that both ‘platforming’ and ‘deplatforming’ carry their own risks. It is a brave person indeed who claims to unerringly know which is the better approach.
But there is a bigger issue at the heart of Jericho’s piece that needs addressing, and that is the notion that our current model of balanced journalism has been tested and found wanting. The argument goes that journalists who are determined to remain ‘neutral’ are being gamed into providing false balance that gives equal time and space to both facts and lies.
I find it difficult to disagree with many of the traits of bad journalism that Jericho identifies, although I might quibble about some of the examples he provides. The symptoms he identifies are real enough: a tendency to highlight conflict, a lack of proper context for stories, a lack of diversity among reporters, a tendency to report everything in terms of its political impact instead of its impact in the real world. What concerns me, though, is the diagnosis. He has the symptoms right but I think he misidentifies the disease.
Jericho sees the culprit in all of this as journalism’s ‘desire for balance’ and ‘desperate need … to appear neutral’. Unless I am reading him incorrectly, he depicts both of these traits as fundamental aspects of a journalism model that has been in place for over a hundred years. I think he’s wrong. They are not the hallmarks of the impartial journalism model; they are lazy and wrong-headed failures to properly follow that model.
Impartiality is fundamental to good journalism, but to reduce it to notions of balance and neutrality is to miss the most important part of the concept.
A couple of years ago, when I got into an argument with One Nation and the Federal Government about their demands that the ABC be ‘fair and balanced’, I tried to explain the difference between being impartial and being balanced. All good journalism codes talk about the need for impartiality, but few if any talk about the need for ‘balance’ alone.
That’s because any attempt at balance that does not weigh the facts and present those facts both accurately and in context is wrong-headed and misleading. It is not and never has been good journalism.
So while Jericho is absolutely right in identifying the many problems that a commitment to balance over everything else can lead to, he is wrong in thinking it is an inevitable consequence of following a traditional journalism model.
What does good, traditional journalism do? It seeks out the facts. All of the facts. It carefully weighs those facts to determine as far as possible where the truth lies. It listens to all views, works as hard as it can to identify and eliminate any prejudices or assumptions of its own. It then reports those facts, providing the context required to understand what is being reported. It understands the difference between facts (which are true and verifiable) and opinions, which are the many and varied views about those facts.
Importantly, any balance demonstrated in a good story is a balance that follows the weight of evidence. That’s why accuracy and impartiality are forever intertwined: a view that is based on lies or misinformation is either exposed as such or omitted from consideration completely.
Regurgitating the views of others without assessing their factual basis is not journalism.
Balancing a smart well-informed view with an ignorant ill-informed view and giving them the same weight is not journalism.
Failing to care about where the truth lies is not journalism.
I agree with Jericho that these things often happen. But they happen when journalists fail to follow the model of journalism that has served us well for over a hundred years, not when they follow it.
In his piece, Jericho correctly quoted from a recent speech of mine where I said ‘journalism is at risk when it gets drawn into partisanship and a demand that we take sides and declare who we are barracking for’. He saw that as evidence of how deeply ingrained was the commitment to balance and neutrality, and how difficult it would be to shift.
But in the same speech, I made my opposition to the false notion of ‘balanced’ journalism perfectly clear. I said, ‘critics of impartiality will often say that it leads to a kind of he said/she said false balance, where reporters feel obliged to follow every statement about the impact of climate change with a balancing statement that some people argue climate change isn’t real. That is and always has been complete nonsense. That’s not impartial journalism, it’s just bad journalism. There is nothing judicial about reciting a set of facts, giving everyone an equal say and then ending your story. A judicial process involves weighing up the facts and making judgements – in the case of journalism they are editorial judgements based on the weight of evidence.’
My great fear is that, in deciding that modern journalism is not doing its job properly, the solution will be encouraging it to move away from notions of impartiality and towards being a partisan player in the game, instead of recommitting itself to the clear-headed and powerful role it has always needed to play as an honest broker for the facts.
This notion of journalists being tied to false balance and dispassionate ignorance is so widespread and so often wrong-headed that I suspect part of the problem may lie in the very word itself: ‘impartial’ suggests that journalists treat everything equally and without judgement, whether it is fact or fantasy.
Perhaps it is time to find new ways of describing proper, traditional journalism. Here goes:
I am a journalist. I am partial only to the truth.
Alan Sunderland is an author, journalist and advocate for public interest journalism. He tweets at @asunderland