Is “Both-Sides” Journalism Truly Unbiased?

Traditional journalism leaves many stories untold, or incomplete. Researchers investigate alternative models of journalism that aim for inclusivity and combat a legacy of racism in the media.

Always tell both sides of a story. It’s an old axiom of journalism intended to offer objectivity and credibility, in theory, to report stories without bias. In recent years many prominent scholars in journalism have questioned whether this approach creates a so-called “false-balance,” that essentially gives equal standing to unsupported claims as it does to well-accepted facts. “There are good examples of how a blind insistence to both-sides reporting can invalidate marginalized voices,” says Letrell Crittenden, PhD, who leads the Communications Program at Jefferson. It’s an approach that also contributes to structural racism in the media.

Letrell Crittenden

Letrell Crittenden, Director of the Communications Program at Jefferson

Dr. Crittenden spoke about both-sides journalism at a recent national conference of journalism educators – the AEJMC. “Both-sides reporting often leans on quoting those in positions of power and authority, giving less air-time to exploring the humanity of those without power,” says Dr. Crittenden. He’s been investigating alternative modes of journalism that provide a platform for Black communities and communities of color to tell stories that engage media in ways that are authentic and representational. He described the work of two such Pennsylvania-based community-journalism projects in an analysis for the journal Journalism Practice.

We speak to him about his work and how both-sides reporting can feed into racist stereotypes and bias.

What is “both sides” reporting? Why did it become a standard practice in journalism?

It stems from a number of traditional practices in journalism– objectivity, balance – that refer to a belief that news stories should present a range of views within each story. I actually agree with that idea.  However, that is not how the idea of “both sides” has developed over time. Today, both-sides has come to mean that news stories should give equal time to opposing viewpoints – typically linked to political causes – and that a failure to do so represents a form of bias. Today, the importance of this idea of balance has become so inflated. It  is used by people to outright dismiss news and information that appear to favor one particular “side” over the other, even if the information within  is factually on point. The news details how the Trump campaign’s claims of voter fraud are weak.  It’s biased against Trump, so it’s called “fake news.” That is never how the concept of objectivity or balance was intended to operate. But because people are free to place their own interpretations on such concepts, the idea that it could be interpreted in this manner was also the flaw of balance. Truth, not perspective, always matters more in news storytelling.

Do you feel like that style of reporting is outdated, that journalism needs new approaches?

Absolutely to both questions. But I don’t’ necessarily believe that the approaches need to be new per se.  Allowing storytellers to center a perspective in news is not new, and in fact was commonplace in a great deal of news reporting throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Muckrakers who exposed corruption in government, the work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, which exposed the horrors of lynchings in America, these were not objective narratives. Wells-Barnett was not out to show some balanced perspective on why Black people were being murdered in the South without justification. But these stories were based on solid investigative reporting and truth-telling.

What are some of the problems that arise with both-sides reporting?

First, as mentioned, it centers perspective as opposed to truth telling. That in turn leads to the elevation of absurd ideas for the sake of balance, which is what we call the creation of false equivalencies. Take climate change, for example. The vast majority of research over the past several decades has overwhelmingly confirmed that man-made activity is resulting in horrendous changes to our ecosystems. If the goal is truth-telling, that should be the perspective, period. But because, for whatever reason, some people have a different view, and because this view has political connotations, balance dictates that the largely-rejected studies related to climate change deserve an equal play in news stories. Thus, we now have people peddling and elevating disputed facts for the sake of balance.  The same has happened with mask wearing and the elevation of conspiracies surrounding election fraud. This is not good for democracy or the public sphere.

Can you give examples of when “both sides” journalism contributed to racist or biased reporting? Or perpetuated false claims?

There are plenty of examples, but I think the biggest issue is that it robs journalists of color, of their perspective on issues related to race. The big example from this summer was when Pittsburgh-native Alexis Johnson was pulled from covering the George Floyd protests because she sent out a sarcastic tweet ridiculing the hypocrisy in how a riot following a Kenny Chesney concert was covered. This was seen as “bias” by the editor of her then-employer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, so they denied her the chance to report about an issue she knew more about than almost any reporter in that newsroom, as a Black woman from the city. She had better connections with potential sources than any other person in that newsroom. Not only did this in the short-term rob the paper of much-needed perspectives – indeed balance – regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, it eventually led her and another Black photographer, Michael Santiago, to leave the newspaper. Now, two reporters who had a connection to Black communities are gone from the newsroom, which means, most likely, fewer stories featuring perspectives from Black residents of Pittsburgh will be written. And given that Pittsburgh has historically stereotyped Black communities, it will most likely lead to more unbalanced, unfair reporting by the newspaper.  The lesson for Black journalists?  Do not offer your perspective, even when your perspective is needed most. This only perpetuates the problem related to coverage of Black communities.

Can you describe some of the community-based journalism project you’ve researched or are directly involved in?

I’m currently involved in a number of projects.  The primary one is here in Philadelphia, which is known as the Germantown Info Hub. The goal of the Info Hub is to connect, highlight and elevate the voices of residents in Germantown, a largely African American, working-class neighborhood less than a half-mile away from the north end of the East Falls campus. Research I conducted with colleague Andrea Wenzel from Temple University found that local residents felt they only saw their neighborhood in the news when negative events took place, such as shootings.  The also felt they didn’t have enough access to everyday information about what is happening in Germantown.

The Info Hub essentially tries to deal with both of these issues through not only original news reporting, but also by holding events to discuss issues impacting the community.  In some events, we have small group discussions that allow residents to give their take on issues impacting the neighborhood.  Others are accountability discussions. In these, we invite journalists to meet with local residents and share stories they have completed, or are working on, focused on Germantown. This gives local residents an opportunity to express concerns over news coverage directly with local reporters.  How does this help?  It makes sure journalists hear from local residents, and that local residents, in small groups, are learning about what their neighbors are doing to help out in their community. That’s why we say one of our goals is to connect. News and information is not just a one way flow, and we are doing everything we can to make sure that news circulates in a variety of ways in the neighborhood, even if we aren’t directly involved. In doing so, we are building a healthy communication infrastructure that includes, but goes beyond daily news reporting. We are also launching a similar project, by the way, in Central Pennsylvania. Different community, different demographics, but the issues all remain the same in terms of elevating and connecting community voices.

What can traditional journalism learn from these approaches? Or how should establishment journalists interact with community-led organizations.

It’s simple. Engage your community, and be accountable to your community. News has operated too long in an extractive manner, in which they go into traditionally marginalized communities, take out specific narratives that are often based on stereotypes, and only return when they want more of the same. This is why many communities do not trust legacy media. Newsrooms should understand they operate within a communication ecosystem. And to be a healthy member of an ecosystem, you need to make sure all of the needs of every segment of your community is served. This requires getting to know your community on an authentic level, relaying a diverse set of narratives about a community, and being responsive and making corrections when your work does harm. But in order to do so, newsrooms must first recognize there is a problem. Hopefully, the events of 2020 have shown enough newsrooms that there is indeed a problem and that change is needed to end systemic racial practices by news organizations.

, ,
Science and Technology