Eric May – Media Consultant




Why I don’t believe in objectivity

There’s a lot of talk about “balanced and fair reporting.” But how is it actually achieved, and can it be measured? 

After all, what is balance, really?  Both sides of the story, that’s for sure. But how do you achieve it?

Some say the answer is objectivity. The journalist tries to make the report as “objective” as possible, as opposed to “subjective” or judgmental, or in blunter terms, biased. 

That’s a problem. Objectivity itself is subjective, and subject to interpretation. We all have our own definition of what “objectivity” means.

And as human beings, we bring our interests, our education, our socialization, our philosophies, and our subjective biases to work every day. Being “objective” just isn’t possible, even if you try to be.

Who you are comes out in your work from time to time. We can’t help from being affected by what we are seeing and experiencing. We’re only human, after all, even journalists.

So given our human nature, is there any way to ensure that our stories are balanced, outside of our stated desire to be “objective?” 

I suggest the answer can be found in the most basic component of broadcast journalism: time. Balanced reporting is a function of time: equal time for both sides of the story.

If you’ve got 20 seconds for one viewpoint, give 20 seconds for the other side of the story. If you’ve got a 10 second sound bite with one political leader, balance it with a 10 second (or 9, or 12, but no more than 15 seconds) sound bite from an opposition figure.

And if you can’t get sound from both sides, then make sure the missing sides’ position is explained in text or with supporting images or graphics, running the exact or approximate length as the other side.

It doesn’t even matter what form it takes: narration with video and/or graphic, sound bite, on camera “tag”... as long as you’ve giving equal time to both sides, your story is by definition balanced.

As experienced professionals, we’d like to think we can be trusted to approach a story professionally, and report it in a fair and balanced manner.

It’s easy to say, but harder to do, especially in the face of obvious wrongdoing or injustice.

Sometimes there’s a feeling that the “truth” has to come out somehow, that the viewers have to see a situation for what it really is. It’s valid, it can be powerful, but it’s not journalism.

It’s advocacy, it’s commentary, it’s editorializing. Which is fine, if it’s labeled as such. But it isn’t credible journalism and it definitely isn’t balanced and fair, even if it’s “right.”

The journalist’s job is to present all the facts in a balanced and fair manner, and then let the public decide the truth. Lay out the facts, and let the public decide what’s right. That’s doing a professional job.

A useful method for making sure you are reporting in a balanced way is to make sure you are giving equal time for both sides of the story.

Try it sometime: count your sound bites, and add up the time given to each side in your balanced story. Is it really as “balanced” as you thought it was?