In the second of this two-part series, Joe Mazor looks at how the news media can achieve the right kind of impartiality.
I argued in Part 1 that there are good reasons for asking news organisations that claim to be impartial to cover public policy issues with strict impartiality – in a way that does not betray journalists’ personal views to well-informed, fair-minded audience members. Doing so helps safeguard the wisdom of voters, fosters democratic legitimacy, and mitigates social polarization.
In this part, I turn to the question of how strictly impartial news coverage can be achieved. I will begin by criticising the dominant just-the-facts model. I will then argue that strict impartiality can be far better achieved via a model inspired by the adversarial legal trial and via ensuring political diversity amongst a news organisation’s journalists.
The Just-the-Facts Model
The dominant approach to producing impartial news coverage is the just-the-facts model. This model asks the journalist to choose which stories to cover based on their importance. It then asks the journalist to report the important facts of the story – the “who, what, where, when, why, and how”. Finally, the model asks the journalist to convey the different parties’ statements about controversial aspects of the story to the audience.
The following Reuters article provides a good example of just-the-facts coverage.
Here are the facts (as reported by the article):
Who: The Lebanese army and the Israeli air force
What: The Lebanese army fired on the Israeli planes.
Where: south Lebanon
When: Tuesday, 29 December, 2009
Why: Lebanon was defending its air space against low-altitude Israeli flights.
How: The Lebanese army used anti-aircraft guns to fire on the Israeli planes.
And here are the competing statements:
Israel is checking into the matter.
Lebanon and U.N. peacekeepers says that the flights are a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701.
Hezbollah claims the right to acquire anti-aircraft weapons in response to the incursions.
This article illustrates the advantages of the just-the-facts model. In a short space, many of the most important aspects of the incident are conveyed to the audience. Moreover, the parties have an opportunity to share their perspectives. Finally, the journalist is not explicitly taking sides. She does not tell her audience which party she thinks is in the wrong nor what the international community should do in response to this incident.
The Problems with Just-the-Facts
However, the just-the-facts model fails to achieve strict impartiality. This is because there is no value-neutral standard of “importance”. Since the journalist’s judgment of what is important is fundamentally tied to her political views, the just-the-facts model leads to routine bias in the choice of stories and facts.
Consider again the article above. One aspect of the story not mentioned (but covered in other articles about similar incidents) is that Hezbollah routinely smuggles weapons into south Lebanon, also in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. Israel has long argued that its flights over Lebanon provide crucial intelligence on Hezbollah’s weapon movements.
Is this aspect of the story important? A journalist sympathetic to Israel’s perspective would certainly think so. But a journalist who believes that the Israeli flights are unjustified may well see this aspect of the story as less important than, say, the fact that Israeli warplanes visited large-scale destruction in Lebanon in the past (and are thus likely to provoke fear among Lebanese civilians) or the fact that Hezbollah is using the Israeli flights to justify weapons acquisition (further destabilizing Lebanon). Clearly, then, just-the-facts coverage is often deeply influenced by the journalist’s personal political views.
Such violations of strict impartiality can generate all of the problems discussed in Part 1. In the Reuters article above, the exclusion of Israel’s self-defence justification undermines the audience’s ability to competently and independently judge who is in the wrong. It also undermines Israel’s right to a fair hearing in the court of public opinion. And it contributes to social polarization by making Israel’s supporters seem patently unreasonable. Needless to say, just-the-facts coverage from a pro-Israel news source that ignores the flights’ effects on Lebanese civilians is similarly problematic.
Admittedly, the just-the-facts model has a built-in corrective for this problem. The parties’ statements can highlight important aspects of the story left out by the journalist.
However, this corrective is insufficient for three reasons. First, due to space constraints, the journalist will often have to choose how much of a party’s statements to report (presumably based on the statement’s importance). The predictable consequence is that statements that the journalist does not find compelling will receive short shrift.
Second, the parties sometimes refuse to provide comments on a story. For example, Israel is reluctant to say anything about its flights since they violate UN resolutions.
Finally, simply presenting the parties’ statements does not enable the audience to evaluate the truth of these statements. Imagine that Israel had explicitly stated that its flights are necessary to monitor Hezbollah’s weapon movements. To evaluate the plausibility of this rationale, it is crucial to know whether Hezbollah is in fact rearming and whether the frequency and altitude of the Israeli flights are consistent with reconnaissance objectives. However, since these matters are controversial, they will be excluded from coverage limited to the parties’ statements and to facts. Thus, the parties’ statements do not offer a panacea for the just-the-facts model’s shortcomings.
An Adversarial Model for Coverage of Political Stories
There is, however, a better model for achieving strictly impartiality – one inspired by the adversarial legal trial. Note that the aim of a jury trial is similar to the aim of a political news story: to enable ordinary citizens to reach well-reasoned conclusions about some set of empirical and/or normative controversies. The adversarial trial achieves this objective, not by asking some ostensibly neutral agent to present the important facts of the case to the jury. Such an approach would be subject to the biases of the presenter. Instead, it stages an evidence-based contest between zealous advocates for opposing positions.
The same approach could be used by journalists. Rather than “neutrally” reporting on “important” stories and facts, journalists could instead be asked to alternate between the perspectives of sincere, zealous advocates for different positions in choosing which stories to cover and how to cover them.
What would such adversarial coverage look like? First, the stories chosen would generally be a cross-section of the top stories covered by news sources across the political spectrum. Second, for any particular story, adversarial coverage would begin with a neutral, accurate headline. It would then lay out the uncontroversial facts of the story. However, the rest of the coverage would be structured as an evidence-based contest between competing perspectives. I have provided an example of adversarial coverage of the incident above here.
The adversarial model avoids the key shortcomings of the just-the-facts model. First, the adversarial model explicitly asks the journalist to expose the competing parties’ statements to evidence-based challenges, even when the available evidence does not meet the standard of a “fact”. Second (and more importantly), the journalist is not asked to use her own judgment of importance in choosing which stories/facts to report on. Rather, she is tasked with covering what advocates for competing political viewpoints would find most important. This approach is much more likely to reliably generate strictly impartial coverage.
Objection: Audience Engagement
However, this adversarial model is subject to several objections. First, some may worry about audience engagement. Adversarial coverage will generally be more complex than just-the-facts coverage. It will also include claims that partisans on both sides of the issue will find deeply objectionable. Perhaps, then, adversarial coverage is a recipe for audience disengagement.
Yet I would argue that adversarial coverage will in fact be more engaging than just-the-facts coverage. There is a reason why American court dramas make for good television. A contest between zealously argued perspectives, complete with emotive language on the different sides of the issue, is more engaging than a drier, ostensibly neutral presentation of a story.
As for partisan audience members, I would suggest that the main reason they abandon non-partisan news sources is not because opposing claims are presented (a partisan will tend to dismiss such claims as outlandish). Rather, it is because the stories, facts, and challenges to the opposing perspective that the partisan sees as most important are often excluded from just-the-facts coverage. Since adversarial coverage will (in part) take up the perspective of partisans, such coverage may therefore be more attractive to partisan audiences as well.
Objection: Journalistic Resources
Sceptics might next object that the adversarial model requires an unrealistic amount of resources. Going beyond the uncontroversial facts and parties’ statements requires time and research that seems quixotic to expect of already resource-strapped news organisations.
The solution to this problem is government funding. As many scholars have argued, impartial, high-quality journalism is a public good. The arguments advanced in Part 1 reinforce this justification for government financing of high quality journalism.
Note that one of the key obstacles to government funding of news organisations in many countries has been (the often justifiable) perception of publicly-funded news organisations’ political bias. A better model of impartiality would mitigate this problem.
Objection: Journalistic Perspective-Taking
Sceptics of adversarial coverage might next question journalists’ ability to engage in the perspective-taking required by the adversarial model.
However, note that the adversarial legal system routinely makes this perspective-taking demand of lawyers. Whatever a defence lawyer thinks of an incident, she is required to take up the perspective of a zealous advocate for her client’s innocence. And in order to construct her argument, she must anticipate what a zealous advocate for the other side will argue. If lawyers can alternate between the perspectives of zealous advocates for opposing sides of a controversy, it does not seem unreasonable to ask journalists to do the same.
A more important concern is an epistemic one. How would, say, a left-wing journalist know what the best right-wing arguments are or what stories a right-wing person would find most important?
The answer is political diversity. Non-partisan news organisations should employ journalists with political views that mirror those of the polity as a whole (with the exception of fringe views incompatible with core liberal democratic values). This can be done by actively recruiting journalists from opposing partisan news organizations. A left-wing journalist in a politically diverse news organization will have little difficulty knowing what stories a right-wing audience member would find important. She can simply ask a colleague.
Objection: Implementation Incentives
Finally, sceptics might doubt whether such a major change in the approach to news coverage can be sustainably implemented. After all, existing professional practices are deeply entrenched. And journalists obtain substantial satisfaction from being able to cover stories “through their lens.”
Yet a change in how journalists cover the news is not utopian. As I highlighted in Part 1, many audience members are already (understandably) dissatisfied with the impartiality of the news. Moreover, if policymakers can be convinced of the adversarial model’s merits, public broadcasters like the BBC can be asked to follow this model. In addition, journalism schools could be convinced to teach this model. Finally, if audiences prefer adversarial coverage, and if public news organisations like the BBC adopt the adversarial model, there will be competitive pressure on other non-partisan news organisations to follow suit.
There are also good reasons to expect compliance with this model once it is implemented. Consider adversarial coverage of the incident above in which the Israeli self-defence justification was excluded. Pro-Israel audience members, journalists within the organisation sympathetic the Israeli position, and regulators (in the case of a publicly-funded news organisation) can all be expected to hold the news organisation to account for such an obvious violation of the adversarial model’s requirements.
I do not claim that change will be easy. However, given the shortcomings of the just-the-facts model and the importance of strict impartiality for the health of liberal democracies, there are good reasons in favour of the adversarial model of news impartiality defended here.
By Joe Mazor
Joe Mazor is a political philosopher who is currently a visiting academic at the LSE’s Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science. His research interests include distributive justice, democratic theory, philosophy of economics, and applied ethics.
- For further discussion of the just-the-facts model, see Christopher Meyers, “Objectivity: Introduction,” in Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach, ed. Christopher Meyers (New York: Oxford University Press.)
- For a more sophisticated version of the just-the-facts model and a defense of it. See Carrie Figdor, “Objectivity in the News: Finding a Way Forward,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 25 (2010): 19–33.
- For a description of American adversarial trial and some criticism of its capacity to enable the jury to discern the truth, see G. Goodpaster, “On the Theory of American Adversary Criminal Trial,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 78, no. 1 (1987): 118–54.
- For a more detailed argument against the just-the-facts model and in favour of the adversarial model, see Sections 3–6 of Mazor, Joseph. “International Rights Violations and Media Coverage: The Case for Adversarial Impartiality.” International Journal of Applied Philosophy 27, no. 2 (2013): 225–249.