Fake Morality is Deceiving the Public

During last year’s US Presidential election, Buzzfeed reported on sexual allegations about Donald Trump that they were unable to confirm, yet they published them. Why? So that the readers “can make up their own minds” said their editor-in-chief, and that is “how we see the job of reporters in 2017”. So called big news sites publish stories that are unverifiable. This is all for profit driven capitalism, the only way by which modern media can survive.

Read: Democracy?

In a meeting of the Journalist Committee, famous journalist Christiane Amanpour said that their goal should be the truth, not neutrality. For her, “the US campaign was shocking as a particular candidate enjoyed a higher bar. All the press outlets were seeking a balance between fake morality and truth”.

“Journalists used to covering candidates who were like “apples and oranges” were presented with a candidate, Trump, who was like “rancid meat”

Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) said, in the Perugia International Journalism Festival, “Good journalism tries to obtain the best attainable version of the truth”. But in this digital era, it is difficult to detect the truth. Today the journalists are writing stories to satisfy a false balance. This has long been a single code of journalism. It embodies the quixotic concept that journalists should give equal weight to all related parties. This “post-truth” era, proved it wrong. We will look at some examples.

Tracing the History

Excessively partisan newspapers were published in early American Republic time. The New York Post was started to oppose the dominant Republicans. Later G Baldasty wrote, “Partisanship could not appeal to a large enough group of readers  to be financially attractive to advertisers, and thus such partisanship was de-emphasized. Trade journals warned editors that advertisers wanted less criticism of public officials,” while also warning that overt partisanship “hurt circulation and, consequently, advertising revenues.”

These pressures increased in the twentieth century, as most American cities became single-paper towns. Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall writes, newspapers’ “financial footing became increasingly based on monopoly ad pricing” in this era. But they could only maintain that monopoly if they remained “the default news source for all news consumers in their geographic domain.” And that, in turn, required them to eschew coverage that might anger some of their readers.


The 2016 US Presidential election highlighted issues surrounding balance in the press

The Presidential Campaign

Why was there a balance reporting in the 2016 campaign where one candidate was suspected of using a private email account and the other was accused of many bankruptcies, doubtful tax practices and sexual allegations? The New York Times public editor Liz Spayd justified her journalists in their inquiry about countries which donated to the Clinton Foundation, and if they had received special treatment from Hillary Clinton’s State Department (they found nothing). Spayd said, “Fear of false balance is a creeping threat to the role of the media because it encourages journalists to pull back from their responsibility to hold power accountable”

Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine became an object of pity when he, as quoted in Spayd’s article, said that journalists used to covering candidates who were like “apples and oranges” were presented with a candidate, Trump, who was like “rancid meat”.

Read: The politics of morality

The Washington Post reports that “editors do not have any columnists who share the racist belligerence of our president. It is now difficult to get writers to defend the views of a man that a large minority of Americans voted for”. The writers who say that the media did a sub-standard job of reporting the shortcomings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Last September, after many Clinton supporters complained about coverage that was light on facts claiming that the Democratic candidate engaged in wrongdoing, New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd denied allegations that her paper’s journalists put false balance in their reporting.

“Conservatives who objected to the National Review’s position could find solace at white nationalist sites such as Breitbart”

Often false balance doctrine is taken as rational thinking. Conventional wisdom suggests journalists apply their own moral judgments as in the case of Clinton’s use of private email servers or Trump‘s hacking into computers. The journalists make these kinds of judgments every single day. When we decide to cover one story, we are leaving aside some other story. To make these decisions about what is more important, we must make moral judgments. As a politician’s affair is considered masala news, while family relations do not make headlines because it is a moral judgment on the part of the reporter what to write about.

The New York Times’ Spayd replied when conservatives accused her paper of unfair coverage on them that, “we don’t want to displease you because we need people on our both sides. It is vital for our revenue.” But Conservatives also have a complete network of alternatives to the mainstream press like Fox News. When one of the Republican publications reacted to its party’s presidential contender with a magazine cover denouncing him, conservatives who objected to the National Review’s position could find solace at white nationalist sites such as Breitbart.

EU Referendum Campaign

Bank of England governor Mark Carney was the ultimate expert — put up by George Osborne to warn of the immediate effects a Brexit vote would trigger. But later Mr. Carney said Brexit’s not that big a risk and may hurt the EU as much as the UK anyway.

Read: How a hung parliament totally changes the game for Brexit

The coverage of the EU referendum campaign was somewhat balanced.  The Loughborough academics study showed that almost all articles were in favor of the Leave Campaign. The most of the experts were of the view that it would be bad for the UK economy, but they were poorly reported, so few have expected the result. Heavy insistence on balance can result in unwanted bias. A study by Jeremy Burke concluded, “The public suffers as a result of the fact that many media organizations, who are desperately seeking neutrality in their reporting, directly or indirectly withhold important information”.

MMR Vaccine Controversy

Andrew Wakefield, in 1998, claimed that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Only a few journalists paid attention to his claims. So he targeted at general subjects writers and sold them it as general interest stories. B Goldacre remembers, “Almost all the MMR stories, in 2002, were written by non-science journalists.

Journalist Brian Deer investigated Wakefield because there was no credibility in his claims. Deer’s extensive research found out that there were some financial interests that led to his deceitful behavior, and in time Wakefield’s MMR claims were exposed as false. But this needless panic caused by conflicting reports led to numerous parents choosing not to vaccinate their children. It also resulted in the revival of the measles worldwide. It proves that good journalism needs two opposing views but not when the evidence points in one direction.

Climate Change Debate

“The BBC, in 2011, gave “undue attention to marginal opinion”  on the topic of manmade climate change which was scientifically proved”

The climate change debate is one of the worst examples of this false notion of balance. In Amanpour’s words, “All type of evidence proved humans responsible for the global warming, but news media in the name of balance, challenge it. We must fight against normalization of the unacceptable. One way to do this is to recognize that this is what false balance can do. Like everyone, journalists have every right to challenge scientific knowledge. But challenging for the sake of balance can go against public interest.

Read: Pariah states and the Paris Agreement

A  Trust report pointed out that the BBC, in 2011, gave “undue attention to marginal opinion” on the topic of man-made climate change which was scientifically proved. Still, almost all the BBC shows followed the editorial guidelines on impartiality,” resulting in far too much airtime for climate change deniers.

In the false balance theory, two different viewpoints are treated as equal in spite of the lack of evidence. Not only the BBC but many other media houses are depicting incidents unfairly in the name of balance; with a close eye to the fact that good science reporting needs a systematic method with some pieces of evidence not necessarily two opposing views.

Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie”

Theodore Dreiser wrote “Sister Carrie” in 1900, a realistic novel about a poor girl who chooses a sinful but comfortable life. A businessman named George Hurstwood is the other party. Hurstwood somewhat robs his company in this pursuit and flew with Carrie. But, he is hurt when he reads a report about himself in a newspaper which labels him as a thief. He became a victim of social injustice which sees only one side. The newspapers don’t describe his circumstances or why he takes the money. His intentions were not understood but just accused.

If Hurstwood were alive today, a journalist would have tracked him down via social media and write a sympathetic profile for him. He'd be happy to see how giving a sympathetic explanation to someone’s immoral behavior has become a fashion today. We would learn about his wife and children as an access point for resources. He would become a victim of social mistreatment. The personal history of the wrongdoer is as crucial as the facts are. So, newscasters must devote more airtime to his narrative.

There is a dark history of lynchings in parts of the USA, along with the rest of the world. The media has not always covered these incidents accurately

The Dark Past of Lynching

In 1892, numerous incidents of murders of black Americans by the racist mob were reported. But, as D Mindich writes, “The big media showed these incidents as morally debatable consequences of the instant justice against often fabricated crimes.”- From the book, -Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism.

The same principles govern modern journalists as they think Hillary Clinton’s condemnation of sectarianism is at par with the Donald Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric . These incidents took a cold tone in media reporting, almost in all big names including the Times, gave mechanical reporting which lacked in informed judgment of the murderers’ logic. The Times reported that “a negro was lynched” in Alabama with the claim, “he attempted to assault two white women.” And “the young negro”, who murdered Michael Tierney, “was killed by the people.” And two men “were hanged last night,” with the statement that “they had murdered Mr. Benson Blake.” But the surprising thing was there was no use of the word “allegedly” in all these reporting.

The black journalist, Ida Wells, rejected the idea of fake balance that always permeated the prominent press. But she was disturbed when the racists killed her friend Thomas Moss. The Times’ printed this incident with the claim that Moss was killed for “ambushing and shooting down” four deputy sheriffs. But this was not the truth. Wells said, in her weekly paper, that Moss ran a grocery shop which was a threat to a white business. So a racist mob fired into Moss’s shop. Consequently, many people including white were also injured—the men whom an elite paper described as deputy sheriffs — and all the black men, present at the spot, were arrested. But Moss was shot to death later.

The AP published that one of the lynched men raped a child. Wells discovered that that so-called “child” was an adult woman and that she went into his room herself. Thus a fake child rape case turned out to be a sex agreement between a white sultry woman and an eager black man.

Some journalists follow the right path, but the others insist on balancing act. Wells was charged with meshing “sensational charges with false claims”. At Wells insistence, when a British committee was formulated to fight lynching cases, The Times grumbled that “it is especially to be deplored that it should take this action at the insistence of a slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress who does not scruple to represent the victims of black brutes in the South as willing victims.” Thus balance has fake moral, as its origin is in rank capitalism.

Valid Science and Pseudoscience

A good journalism has impartiality with an ability to avoid bias. But for media differentiation between bona fide science and fake science is a strenuous job. All journalists try their best to collect a genuine story within a certain time limit. If experts and assigned reporters are put together to complete the story, there would be less risk of this false balancing act. In the name of false balance – whatever the intention of media is, showing genuine science and fake science in an opposing style gives an issue false contentious impression. This also presents dubious motivations as if they are scientific judgments.

The Dilemma

The most affected party here in this balance driven media race is the general reader or audience who hope for a reliable reporting of the incidents as they want to actively participate in a democratic discussion and yield some positive and fruitful results. But on the other side, this task of gathering and reporting the factual information is a time-consuming and strenuous enterprise that needs a veritable team of reporters. We need enough money to give as a salary or fees to them, and if you are not Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, we have yet to find a better way of getting that much money to pay them than profit-driven capitalism. Here comes the real turn. It means that the market will often decide how stories are reported not the facts or reality— even when the market is immorally wrong.

The Positive Steps

The BBC now has instructed its reporters to evade this theory of balance , “Science covers many views but always needs the proved evidence.” There will be a difference between the reality and public thinking, and presses use fake balance theory to pacify their readers. But they should use it as a debate or discussion but to reach a decisive result. Talking about the controversy over the HPV vaccine in a radio show, Dr. Kelly, and others avoided this balance but also talked about people’s anxiety. Thus it resulted in an informative discussion which cleared all apprehensions in a scientific context.

So journalism is not just collecting different views at different times and reporting them as a unit to show their validity on that so-called condition. Journalism is a search of truth. For some reporters, fair publicizing is like a vital force that keeps them going. They have intent to shape the different views to detect the truth. If the evidence is clear, cover different views only to give an assimilation of the evidence not to confuse them. Thus right media perspective is vital in providing the right information.


Sandeep Kumar Mishra is a writer, poet, and lecturer in Political Science and English Literature. Last year his work was published in more than 50 national and international magazines. 

- Sandeep Kumar Mishra