An obsession with media balance

Will Rippey is a first-year Philosophy, Politics and the Public major. He is a guest writer for the Newswire from Bowling Green, Ohio.

In July of 2004, a study was released by Global Environmental Change analyzing a collection of 636 articles from various newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, published between the years 1988 and 2002. The study demonstrated that newspapers gave equal amounts of coverage to climate change deniers as climate scientists. According to the article, this ratio is a result of the American media’s objective of providing balanced coverage of issues. This objective leads to “biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action,” according to the study.

Now, hopefully, we can agree that giving equal coverage to a fringe theory and presenting it as equally legitimate as the view of the scientific community is bad. The mass media plays a key role in shaping issues and the public’s understanding of them. It is therefore damaging to present climate change denial as legitimate because it devalues scientific consensus in public opinion. Unfortunately, this study points to a larger problem in American media: an obsession with “balanced” reporting.

I’m sure that most people would disagree with the idea that a focus on balanced reporting is bad. In an era marked by political strife and polarization, it would seem obvious that the only way to save our democracy from extremism is balance. However, I would argue that the damage done to American democracy is in large part the result of the media’s cult of balance and that the media was never balanced in the first place.

When Donald Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016, he had 3,500 lawsuits against him and received twice as much media coverage as any other candidate. The fact that most of the coverage was negative did not matter; it bolstered his poll numbers significantly.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the media published a total of 40,000 words on Trump’s 3,500 lawsuits. In the pursuit of balance, the media responded with 65,000 words on Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. To suggest that this is an example of balance in media is simply untrue. If the media was truly balanced, Trump would have received the same amount of coverage as his peers and his lawsuits would have received much more coverage. The false balance in the media is largely responsible for the results of the 2016 election.

So, how did we get here in the first place? There are many reasons, ranging from the death of local news to right wing propaganda campaigns, but one of the major reasons is monetary incentive. All five of the most popular news outlets in the United States are privately owned and ultimately aim to make money for their shareholders. When asked about the Trump campaign in 2016, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves stated, “It may not be good for America, but its damn good for CBS.”

If a news outlet does not present so-called balanced journalism, it faces a drop in ratings along with a loss of profits. In fact, many journalists have stated the reason the American media is bad at reporting climate change is that ratings drop whenever climate change is reported on. The corporate nature of American media has been a detriment to its integrity as an institution dedicated to factual reporting and information.

While the aforementioned quote from Leslie Moonves is rather depressing to read, it also presents a solution to the corporate issues of American media: A news outlet that does not have to worry about ratings. One of the best examples of this is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which is tax funded and affected less by ratings. However, an American BBC is not enough. As a society, we must drop the obsession with balance that has been planted in us and seek fact-based solutions to issues at hand. We cannot allow ideas of false balance to halt progress. And above all, we must hold the media accountable for their actions.