During the referendum campaign, and since the overwhelming No vote, a chorus of respected journalists and media academics have declared that the Australian mass media, very much including the ABC, failed in their duty to the Australian public by slavishly adhering to the concept of ‘balance’, and by not calling out misinformation as and when they reported it. This is not the usual claim of bias by the Murdoch media or the No campaign: most of these critics clearly supported Yes. Among them, Mark Kenny, of the Canberra Times and the ANU’s Australian Studies Institute; Chris Warren, former Secretary of the Media Alliance, now at Crikey; Denis Muller of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, in The Conversation; Nikki Savva in a recent column in the Nine newspapers; and the ABC’s staff-elected Board director, and 7.30’s chief political correspondent, Laura Tingle. [Some links may be paywalled]
ABC Alumni does not agree that the ABC’s journalists made a bad job of an all-but impossible task: reporting fairly on both sides of the Referendum debate, while simultaneously distinguishing between information, genuine opinion and outright misinformation. And the Share of Voice count, which the ABC has used for decades in elections, is a useful tool for assessing, and if necessary demonstrating, that the ABC’s coverage has been fair.
But as ABC Alumni Board director and former ABC Editorial Director ALAN SUNDERLAND points out in this article, Voice Tracker is a tool, and ‘balance’ is a concept, that can be misused, misunderstood, or simply abused.
A version of this article first appeared in the Nine Newspapers on Friday October 30.
IT’S TIME TO KILL THE MYTH OF BALANCE
By Alan Sunderland
It’s the idea that just won’t die; the practice that is ruining the reputation of good journalism.
In recent days in these pages, journalists of the calibre of Laura Tingle and Nikki Savva have spoken out against the notion that both sides in a debate like the Voice referendum need to get equal time, no matter what.
It’s a recipe, they say, for platforming lies, and for ‘balancing’ factual and accurate information with disinformation and spin. At worst, it even results in one side of a debate being silenced because the other side refuses to comment, and all because of the need to ensure that both sides are given the same time and column inches to ensure there is no suggestion of bias.
It happens everywhere, but the organisation most often blamed for the practice is the ABC, due to its statutory requirement to be strictly impartial and fair to all sides.
What astonishes me is not that this pernicious practice still exists from time to time; it clearly does, especially if journalists with decades of experience are noting and condemning it, not to mention the cries of complaint from a frustrated public.
What astonishes me is that anyone thinks it represents some kind of notion of fair, principled journalism. In fact, it is the opposite. Balance for the sake of balance is and always has been an abomination, a corruption of good journalism.
It is certainly true that, at every election, the ABC runs a ‘share of voice’ tracker to measure precisely how much time each side of politics gets, and they did the same for the Voice referendum. But what have they consistently said about this tracker? The earliest discussion of it that is still online comes from the 2007 Federal Election, where the ABC warned that the share of voice ‘is not a measure of bias’, doesn’t prove impartiality, and if one side is getting more time than the other for legitimate reasons journalists should not under any circumstances seek to ‘make up the difference’ by giving more time to the other side. The idea of the tracker is simply to let producers and program teams know how much time they are giving to each side. If there are good reasons for an imbalance, it is not considered a problem.
But here is where the difficulty lies. Editorial advisers (as I was for many years) can reassure newsrooms over and over again that false balance is not necessary, and if one side gets more time for perfectly good editorial reasons, so be it. But once you start counting minutes and publicly reporting on the outcome, the pressure is on. Busy newsrooms and program teams get told every week how many minutes they have given to each side, and if the numbers are very unbalanced they will be asked to explain why. Who wants to spend time and energy digging into the history of their reporting to carefully explain a discrepancy? It is so much easier to just make sure the numbers are broadly equal, and then no one will complain. Similarly, critics of newspapers will count up the number of column inches and opinion pieces given to each side, and loudly complain if it is unbalanced.
The end result – manufacturing equal time and airing dubious views or outright lies in the name of balance – is not driven by a commitment to editorial standards, it is driven by deadline pressure, laziness and fear. Better to chuck it all in, aim for a 50/50 split and let the public decide, than to follow the weight of evidence, provide context, call out the lies and then have to justify your decisions to your boss and to the public.
I am tempted to say that the solution is to stop counting – to end the practice of tracking share of voice. But the truth is that if newsrooms don’t do it, their critics will. Everybody uses lack of balance as a line of attack when it suits them. The only real solution is for journalists to work harder to do what they have been told to do already – treat balance as a tool and not an end in itself. Both sides in a debate should probably get equal time most of the time. When things are not equal – when one side lies, misleads or refuses to engage – then balance is no longer a useful tool. The best journalists know this already, and the best newsrooms explicitly include this advice in their standards.
But a word of warning: if we abandon the myth that simple balance is a sign of good journalism, we need to be very careful what we replace it with. Indulging our biases is as bad as taking refuge in false balance. A ‘lie’ is not simply an opinion you don’t agree with, or a perspective you don’t share. If journalists start picking and choosing who gets to be heard based on their own worldview, we will be the poorer for it. The solution is to deliver more context, genuine impartiality in reporting, ensure a fair representation of all views, and kill off the myth of balance.
Alan Sunderland was a former Editorial Director of the ABC and is currently a director of ABC Alumni.