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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Commentary: When "Fair and Balanced" is Less Accurate

The other week at a school board meeting, Jeff Hudson, the Davis Enterprise beat reporter who covers the school district made the casual remark to me that it must be nice not to have space limitations for my stories. It was a factor that I had not given a lot thought to previously--however, as I have become aware of it, it has given great advantage to the ability of covering stories with tremendous detail that cannot be otherwise provided in newspapers due to space limitations that I simply do no have to deal with.

What I had given considerably more thought to is the ability to write stories as I view the facts rather than at times artificially attempting to create balance out of the express need to adhere to the principle of "fair and balance." Unfortunately, I would suggest that such approaches at times lead one to actually bias the coverage. The freedom to write as one sees it, has a great deal of benefit at times--while at the same time running the risk of falling prey to criticism of bias. What I would suggest here is that bias can at times be a good thing, so long as you are willing to be upfront about it (and this blog certainly has been pretty open about its political bent).

All of this came to mind last night as I read Claire St. John's story in the Davis Enterprise, "Fewer council meetings but longer nights." Those who are regulars to this blog will recall my story from April 26, 2007 entitled, "Analysis: Asmundson's Attack on the Mayor Unfounded."

From the titles alone you can see that my story has a definite slant, whereas the Enterprise story obtains a more balanced approach. (I would be remiss if I did not point out here that there have been examples in the Enterprise where the title is less than fair and impartial, and that almost invariably those titles are negative towards the more progressive side of politics in Davis).

Remember that the usual assumption is that fair and balanced is more accurate. That is the mantra that mainstream reporting generally follows and what it affords is protection for the news agent against the charge of bias. (Although I suspect every reporter reading this will be screaming bs, and I understand.)

Let's delve into the story a bit to illustrate that this widely championed but rarely practiced principle can be misleading.

St. John reports on the exchange that we dealt with in our story from two weeks ago:
At the last three council meetings, Greenwald has asked her colleagues to keep comments succinct, avoid repetition and ask their questions of city staff members ahead of time.

"The public does not like it when our meetings go this late, and I am trying as mayor to do a reasonable job in pacing our meetings so they can be over by 11:30," Greenwald said, at the April 17 meeting.

The council has a policy that at 11:30 p.m., a motion must be passed to continue the meeting. Each time, the meeting has carried on by at least a 4-1 vote, but never without commentary.

On April 17, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson responded to Greenwald's comments with a barb.

"It is just unfortunate that the mayor cannot run a meeting," Asmundson said. "If we have a more efficient meeting, we can finish these things. We can be more efficient if the mayor could just run this meeting more efficiently."

"I talked less than anybody at this meeting," Greenwald replied. "I would challenge anybody out there to take a stopwatch ..."

"You're still talking," Asmundson snapped. "Let's go."
What St. John does not do at this point, which I was able to do, was take Mayor Greenwald's challenge of keeping track of the time used by each member and chronicle how long each councilmember took when they spoke at the meeting.

That's precisely what I did in the April 26 piece and found that indeed, Greenwald spoke far less than any other councilmember and that Asmundson along with her ally Saylor had taken up the most amount of time. That was a lengthy endeavor that had me sitting down for a couple of hours and tallying up how long each member spoke.

Here were the findings:











That leads us to the very natural question of why is it that a Davis Enterprise reporter cannot report on the actual time used by each member?

The simple answer appears to be that such reporting may impart bias if their findings were as skewed and one-sided as the ones I found (and anyone watching that meeting probably would not have to use a stop-watch to figure out that Mayor Greenwald was speaking far less than her colleagues). It would take a side in the story. In short, it would not be "fair and balanced."

Now we can argue that perhaps the Davis Enterprise does pick sides at times, but let's assume at this time that they do not. Let's assume that they adhere to this principle consistently. What do we take away from it?

For me it demonstrates that fair and balanced is not necessarily more accurate. And that sometimes you need to be able to take sides to accurately report a story. The moment you accept even the possibility that there may be validity to this point, you have to look at media such as blogs in an entirely different fashion because the assumption has always been that bias equals less accuracy, but perhaps the truth is that sometimes bias gives you more information than artificial attempts to maintain the journalistic ethos of fair and impartial reporting. Sometimes, we need to get to the truth and the only way to do that is to take sides.

To me it would certainly be defensible to take the time to report on how much each city councilmember spoke if you are going to report on the broader issue of why the meetings are last as long as they are. Perhaps it is too much to ask a reporter to referee in a fight between elected officials, but perhaps that is something that the public ought to know as they weigh in on the accuracy of the claims made by each side in an attempt to come up with their own opinion.

To me giving facts is always in the realm of reporting and we should not shy away from reporting unfortunate and at times one-sided facts. After all, is it not still news if a given office holder makes a charge that turns out to be not backed up by the available facts?

---Doug Paul Davis reporting