About News

Balance in Journalism Is Good … Until It Isn’t

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Two alarming recent headlines:

  • “Why the age issue is hurting Biden so much more than Trump” (New York Times, Feb. 10)
  • “Public equally concerned about Biden’s and Trump’s classified documents, new poll finds” (com, Jan. 29)

In politics, public perceptions like these arise because many people magnify events that support their existing views and distort or ignore those that don’t. That’s not the fault of the mainstream news media. But in some cases when perception does not match reality, the media are very much to blame.

Political journalists canonize the principles of balance and fairness. Especially after years of negative reporting about one political candidate or party, they don’t wish to open themselves up to criticism that they aren’t willing to get critical about the other side. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem comes when the compulsion to appear even-handed causes equal coverage of unequal events. Or if not that, then coverage that is disproportionate to what it deserves.

The most notorious recent example from politics: Coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email practices in 2016. It was a legitimate story, sure. But decisions of volume and prominence matter greatly, and several major news organizations later expressed regret over those decisions.

Now it seems to be happening again. According to Popular Information, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal published 81 stories in the four days following release of the special counsel’s report on Joe Biden’s mishandling of government documents, including attacks on Biden’s mental sharpness.

Biden and Donald Trump’s ages are valid concerns. But Biden’s forgetfulness and verbal stumbles are not the same as Trump’s incoherence and delusion. Their handling of government records is a valid concern. But Biden’s carelessness is not the same as Trump’s willful obstruction. And yet we get headlines like the ones mentioned earlier.

It gives rise to an amusing phenomenon: The media make a big deal out of Event X. Then they start writing stories analyzing why the public thinks Event X is a big deal.

Editors and producers need to judge events by their particular facts and determine the deserved degree of attention in proportion to the attention already given to related events. And for those stories that will spur contentious “but what about” political debates, it is crucial to repeatedly highlight the factual differences between events.

Justifying unwarranted amplification of a piece of news by noting that one political side is making a campaign issue out of that news simply makes the press a pawn of that side. And if the press then argues that it’s merely calling out that manufactured campaign issue, well, it’s still a pawn.

Journalists are not obligated to appear 50-50 when facts are not 50-50. To create artificial balance as a defense against accusations of political favoritism is a consequential blunder.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.