On “Balance”

What does it mean to say that someone’s reporting is “balanced”? I think it’s supposed to suggest something like “not one-sided,” which is really supposed to imply “fair.” I really do believe in fairness in journalism, but the whole “balance” metaphor seems completely wrong to me. Anyway it’s become clear to me that this word means different things to different people.

I do not think that giving equal time or credence to “left” and “right” points of view, or “pro” and “con”, or any other such pair, has anything to do with “balance.” First of all, there may be more enlightening ways to view the issue — not every story is best understood as a conflict. But more fundamentally, I think this word implies that journalists should strive to be equally acceptable (or equally unacceptable) to all sides. The often-used phrase “straight down the middle” has become a synonym for “fair,” but this metaphor gives me hives. What does being exactly between two poles have to do with truth? A judge doesn’t define fairness in this way, and neither should journalists. Rather, I believe that our job is to represent reality as best as we can discern it, with humility, intelligence, sensitivity, and transparency.

A better definition of balance might mean: the story leaves the viewer with an impression that matches what is actually “out there” in the world, plus a detailed critique (links are really helpful for that part.) There is room in this for pluralistic truths, because we live in a pluralistic world, but that doesn’t mean all truths are equal. It is surely important to acknowledge the existence of and fully understand the points of view of the various “sides” in a dispute, but I feel we would be failing significantly if we did not also convey:

  • whether each viewpoint is in the majority or the minority, and by whom it is held.
  • an evaluation of the evidence supporting each position, if the issue involves testable claims of fact.
  • a thorough sense of who is affected by the events in the story, even if those people are unpopular or invisible.
  • what is still uncertain, either because the question is inherently difficult to answer or because we have not yet completed deeper reporting.

In other words, I don’t think it’s enough to say “this person disagrees” without some comment on whether or not their account holds up to the truth, as best we can determine it. “He said, she said” is right out. In fact, forget “balance.” It’s just not the right word at all, because it implies an equivalence that may not exist. Yes, the journalist needs to be dispassionate with the facts, but the facts might not favor all parties equally. I’d much rather think about reporting in terms of completeness, representativeness, accuracy, context, accountability, and transparency. That’s what fairness is to me.

2 thoughts on “On “Balance””

  1. Dear Mr. Jonathan Stray,

    I really do appreciate your thorough analysis of the term ‘balance’ in journalism.
    Thank you.

    I am a Ph. D. candidate in EuroMed Program conducted in collaboration with Cairo University, faculty of Economics & Political Science. My dissertation is on Impact of Newspapers content on Egyptian university students before, during and after the Egyptian Revolution of January 25, 2011.

    May I contact you in case I need any further help.

    I would certainly appreciate that.

    Hala El Zahed (Ms)
    currently working as journalism program leader
    MSA University, Cairo, Egypt

  2. so what is the prove of knowing what balance is. my point is that balanced can be the suggest of half the population people can be voted. I just don’t get how this can help people of what balanced mean if they want to be a journalist.
    Thank you for understanding:
    your sincerely:
    Nikki Smith

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