fair ≠ balanced ≠ objective

The Stranger has given its news and politics blog Slog over to Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and his campaign today. That approximately half of the commentariat there are completely convinced this is an elaborate joke  should give some hint that this is not exactly friendly territory. So, kudos to Mr. McKenna for taking his licks today. [Ed: as the day has gone on, I am starting to wonder whether this is a joke, myself. The first few posts seemed totally legit. Some of the later ones are reading a bit more like parody, to me. Anyway, I think the larger point here still stands.]

[UPDATE, 1:50PM--it is indeed an elaborate joke.]

This is timely, because in the ongoing discussion of media bias, I have wanted to make the point that fairness, balance, and objectivity are not all the same things. Dominic Holden makes a very good point of one distinction in introducing Mr. McKenna this morning:

It's no secret to readers of The Stranger that we're in the tank for Jay Inslee, the Democrat running for Washington State governor. Hell, writers on our staff have donated to Inslee and even filed a No ROB PAC.
The Stranger isn't always balanced, but we do try to be fair. And in the interests of fairness and balance, Rob McKenna will be blogging in this space today. We were actually impressed when McKenna agreed to post on Slog—maybe he is a different kind of Republican after all?—and we encourage readers to engage with McKenna respectfully in the comments threads.
Thus, one can be fair, without necessarily being strictly "balanced." [And, it turns out, this is the case of The Stranger being neither fair nor balanced, but definitely making their biases clear.]

"Objectivity" is, to my mind, both the highest ideal for a news organization and the most difficult to achieve and maintain; simply put, humans are not actually capable of being truly objective. In the journalistic context, objectivity tends to refer to presentation of independent facts without judgement, and in as neutral a way as possible.

It gets complicated, however, when objectivity becomes conflated with balance. In some arguments, the objective facts really do favor one side. To pick (what at least ought to be) an easy example: there is a mountain of scientific evidence supporting the general notion that the earth is a couple of billion years old, that life arose in single-cell form here about a billion years ago, evolved into progressively more complex forms, and that the first hominids arose from this process  about 15 million years ago, the first anatomically modern humans 200,000 years ago, and the first behaviorally modern humans about 50,000 years ago.

An alternative view exists, which posits that the world and mankind were created by God in the space of a week about 6000 years ago.* The evidence for this view consists of very old mythological texts, dubious pseudoscience, and the fervent beliefs of some people.

To give equal weight and time to both arguments would certainly be balanced. It may even be fair. But it is not objective.

*And of course, a host of views exist which posit theistic evolution with the biblical account being a metaphorical description of the scientific one, which is fine and good. These generally aren't the people who go to school board meetings and bitch about "teaching the debate".


RW said...

The argument for teaching creationism in school is founded on the notion that if enough people believe the Earth is hollow and cold that automatically means there should be a section on it in Earth Sciences class.

We have approximately 198,675,996 people who feel that Jules Verne was right when he said there were dinosaurs and flat inland seas down there. Where's my syllabus!!??

Mr. D said...

Thanks for the link, Brian. Good piece. Two things:

I'm not sure that fair, balanced or objective are ever completely possible. Worth striving for, without question, but well nigh impossible to achieve in practice. That's why I'd settle for truth in labeling.

Second, your point about those of us who "posit theistic evolution with the biblical account being a metaphorical description of the scientific one" is apt. Perhaps we need to be at the school board meetings, too.