The BBC just told top managers to stop inviting crackpots to give “the other side” of the climate change debate. The Telegraph reported that the BBC Trust firmly rejected an “‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.”
The case that pushed BBC over the edge was the search for a climate change denier to be quoted as “balance” for the overwhelming scientific agreement that, yes, climate change is happening and is caused by human actions. According to The Telegraph, “The programme’s producers tried more than a dozen qualified UK scientists to give an opposing view but could not find one willing to do so.”
The journalistic obsession with balance plays out in other issues as well, in stories ranging from fracking to rape to voting rights. On any legislative issue, phony “balance” requires matching quotes from official Democratic and Republican voices. The same voices pop up over and over again because they want to be quoted and they make it easy for reporters to find them.
These voices may be elected or appointed officials, or think tanks or pundits. A prime example of the latter: the two-talking-heads syndrome that has “liberal” Mark Shields and “conservative” David Brooks supposedly representing the range of political opinions on National Public Radio’s News Hour.
Really? If they want a debate on the issues, couldn’t they find a genuinely left/progressive voice — thinking Ta-Nehisi Coates, Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzales, Matthew Yglesias, Katrina Vandenheuvel, Patricia Williams, Naomi Klein, or Charles Blow? Or, if they really need to maintain the two-white-guys paradigm, how about Paul Krugman, James Fallows, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (“Kos”), or Josh Marshall?
Even apart from designated commentators, both/all sides try hard to spin the news their way. Regurgitating a he-said-she-said story seems like a way to be fair to all sides, but ultimately cheats the news consuming public. Journalists need to dig deeper than the fake news of press releases, public official-speak, and self-designated spokespersons. Reporting needs the voices of the people whose lives are affected, not just “experts” and professional opinionators.
Journalism seeks truth, not balance, reporting people’s lived reality, not the official stories.