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Fair and balanced? Who cares?

I was a working, bona fide and credentialed journalist once.  I reported the news in my community. I got paid for it.

Since my high school years in local reporter Dorothy Powers Junior Press Club in Spokane, WA., I decided I would become a reporter. After all, it was Superman’s day job, right?

I worked hard as a kid.  I excelled in English class.  I enrolled in my high school journalism class, which became my favorite part of the school day.  I learned the inverted pyramid structure of writing.  I learned and applied the grammatical rules in the AP Style Guide.  I learned interview and note taking techniques.  I learned to appreciate the value of a good editor and how to be one.

My MOS (military occupational specialty) in the U.S. Navy was Journalist.  I was proud of my rating and relished the opportunities to develop my professional chops with the written word.  I wrote hundreds of mundane press releases for hometown newspapers announcing promotions and awards for the local boys.  I learned the style differences required for radio and TV news scripts by writing and editing evening television newscasts for AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) , and hourly news capsules for base and shipboard radio programs.s

After my military service, I earned my dual degree in journalism and political science.
I went to work for three local weekly newspapers over a period of a dozen years.  I worked my way up from cub reporter to editor at the latter two newspapers.  I even won some regional awards for excellence in reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

I had an official press pass from the SPJ as well as one from the local press club and press credentials issued only after an interview by the local police department. These credential were not easy to acquire. They acknowledged that I had invested years in the education and professional work experience to claim the title journalist, and that I was gainfully employed by a legitimate news organization.  I was a bonafide, working journalist.

So here’s the point of all this personal history.  In all my years as a professional journalist, not once was I told by any of my bosses to be “fair and balanced.”  Not once.

That’s not because these publishers and editors expected me to take sides or slant my reporting left or right.  Quite the opposite.   They were all silent on this point because they firmly believed that fairness and balance was not my responsibility as a professional reporter.

Instead, they required me to be accurate and comprehensive.  I was taught that whether my writing is fair or balanced is the reader’s call, not mine.  My employers had no intention of trusting me or any other reporter to decide what’s fair or what constitutes balance. Those are value judgments for our readers to make, not journalists or their editors.

My publishers and editors were very adamant, however, that my work be accurate and comprehensive.  Like most people on the planet, they believe there are objective facts to be reported and that no issue in the public domain is a simple as it might first appear to be.

Think about it for a minute.  If I commit to reporting all the facts of an incident or situation accurately, if I portray the larger context comprehensively, I have done my job.  I have given my readers the tools they need to reach their own conclusions about the event I am reporting.

My reporting may well be perceived by the reader as fair and balanced. Great.  Or it may not, if that reporting contradicts a reader’s closely held values. As a professional reporter, fairness and balance is not my call.  That’s the reader’s call.

In fact, filtering my reporting to include only that which I consider “fair,” and reaching past the facts of a situation in an attempt to achieve what I think is “balance,” would be a violation of the journalistic ethics I learned in school.

In school we were taught to faithfully report the five Ws and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.  Answering these questions is the foundation of any reporting.  For most news, the pursuit of the first four Ws is straightforward. Reporting that last W,  why, and the how of a complex event can be more challenging.

Professional journalism has an answer for this.  It’s called attribution. As a journalist you ask someone clearly in a position to know the why and how and you quote them.  You don’t speculate or opine yourself.  You learn who the available authorities are on the topics of your reporting, and you seek them out for comment.  You ask them the why and how questions and report their responses.

So when some news organization tells you they are fair and balanced, what they are really telling you is that “we don’t trust our readers to judge the facts and determine what is fair and balanced.”  Or they might be telling you that they don’t feel the need to do the hard work or invest in the newsroom personnel to  provide accurate and comprehensive reporting when they can simply proclaim themselves fair and balanced.

As a reader, a consumer of news reporting, I prefer old fashioned, professional journalism. Give me the facts, all of them.  Present the context for the issue being reported. I will decide what’s fair and how important balance is to my understanding of the subject of the reporting.

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