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For the Record: Whose Record?: A Lesson on Balance in Reporting

Janice Prindle of Thetford Academy in Woodstock, Vt.

Janice Prindle
Thetford Academy
Woodstock, Vt.

Title: For the Record: Whose Record?: A Lesson on Balance in Reporting

“If it is Accurate, it follows that it is Fair.”
— Herbert Bayard Swope

“If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’ "
— Lyndon B. Johnson


Rationale and Objectives:

Often people have a limited understanding of the idea of objectivity and balance in reporting. They assume balance means simply that “both sides” in an identified conflict have the opportunity to comment, or that all major candidates for an elected office are given “equal time” in ad space or in a debate; that objectivity means simply that the news article was reported accurately, with no opinions expressed by its writer. Students are likely tothink in this simplistic fashion at first.

In fact, the challenges of objectivity and balance are subtle. Which facts or details are highlighted in an article, and which are downplayed, sometimes in the interest of making a “sexy” story, sometimes even to pursue a hidden agenda? Where does the article end up, on the front page or page seven, above or below the fold? Which crime stories get big play and which ones go unreported? Which photo of the accused will accompany the article? Do we alwaysname the accused and never the alleged victims?

Bias in the real world is more likely to show up as a series of routine decisions by both reporters and editors about what is newsworthy and how much space or emphasis to give it, based upon unacknowledged values and assumptions. Some may argue that the media, in this case, accurately reflect the nature of the community they report on. Others may argue that the media, today at least, actively shape that society; and therefore, that balance requires editors, and reporters, to stretch their understanding of a problem, event or conflict to recognize more than just two obvious “sides,” to think about viewpoints that have been ignored or marginalized over time and actively seek them out; and to rethink routines – even stylistic issues. (For example, The New York Times for years insisted on using “Miss” or “Mrs.” inidentifying every woman in the news.

How we pursue “balance” may reflect our values and viewpoint about the role a newspaper does or should play in society. Is it just an historical record (whose?) Or is it a natural advocate for the underdog, in its role as a watchdog against the abuses of those with power, including but not limited to the power of government? Or both – and in that case how do we balance those roles?

The purpose of this lesson is to broaden students’ understanding of the concepts of balance and of bias, introduce them to professional ethics codes, and get them thinking about what role they think a newspaper should play.

Essential questions:

  • What does it mean to be “balanced” in reporting?
  • How far can journalists go to be fair?
  • Do we accurately reflect the prevailing viewpoint or bias that already exists in the community or the society we report on – or do we have an obligation to play a leadership role, challenging ignorance and prejudice by seeking out voices and viewpoints that are unpopular, silenced or ignored?
  • How do journalists balance conflicting values?


Activities

Activity 1

PREPARATION NOTE: This activity uses an excerpt is from David Guterson’s novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars" (references are to the Vintage paperback edition published in 1995). The excerpt begins on page 187 (“Ishmael, on Tuesday, went to work for his father….”) and ends on page 192 (“Arthur printed that, too.”). You will need copies of the novel OR photocopies of the excerpt for each student (this is “fair use” and you might point that out to students). Starting with a powerful passage from a story is a hook for students on a topic that could seem dry.

  • Introduce the lesson by telling students they will read a fictional portrait of a journalist that is very realistic in the way it raises and explores an essential question: What is balanced reporting? Although set in World War II, it could just as well happen today – in fact, it has, as we shall see. (You may wish to provide students, before reading, with a brief summary of the historical situation and the U.S. internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.)
  • Distribute copies and have students read aloud together the short excerpt. I have found that a “jump in” reading is the most engaging for students: a volunteer starts, reads for a while, stops and another volunteer just picks up. Only students who enjoy reading aloud do so, but all end up paying closer attention and following along.
  • (In this excerpt, Arthur is the owner, editor and chief reporter of a small community weekly in the Northwest during World War II. He actively uses his paper to combat the prejudice and hostility directed at residents of Japanese ancestry, by including and on occasion emphasizing their activities and contributions as neighbors and U.S. citizens. Arthur’s son Ishmael, who has been asked to help out at the paper, questions his father’s actions, which contradict the textbook journalism he has learned in school. Arthur’s actions also cost the paper several subscribers and advertisers. In the exchange between Arthur and Ishmael, the concept of balance is explicitly introduced, along with its complexity.)
  • Follow the shared reading with discussion. Start by listing the specific actions Arthur takes as an editor or reporter that offend Ishmael, subscribers and advertisers. (The list will include examples of balance over time as well as within an article by emphasizing certain details, or in placement and timing of an article.)
    • Why is Ishmael offended?
    • What are his father’s reasons for taking these actions?
    • How does Ishmael define the role of the newspaper? How does Arthur define it?
    • How do students define it? (A quick-write, having students jot down their reactions at this point, might be helpful before having students discuss their personal values.)
      • Do they incline to take Ishmael’s view, or his father’s? Are there other alternatives?
    • Is balance worth achieving even if it costs the paper subscribers and advertisers?
  • Extend the discussion by making a connection with a current event such as the war on terrorism following Sept. 11 or the war in Iraq. Which sources do we hear from most often? How much attention is paid to “unpopular” viewpoints such as those who objected to the war, or backlash against citizens or resident aliens of Arab ancestry? Has this changed over time?
  • Whether or not students reach a consensus, end by pointing out that publishers, editors and reporters don’t all agree, either. Journalists aim to be fair and balanced, but don’t always agree on how to define it, or on far they should go to achieve it.

Activity 2

PREPARATION NOTE: This activity can be done in the classroom but would be best in a lab setting with access to computers with Internet access. If it is done in the classroom, you will need copies of the ethics codes and the journal article cited below.

  • Distribute copies of the ethical codes of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and Society of Professional Journalists, to establish how seriously journalists take Arthur’s concerns, even if they don’t all agree with his methods. (If you have access to a lab, have students access these codes and more at www.asne.org under the "Archives" section and "Ethics Codes.") Ask students (perhaps working in pairs) to highlight any items on the codes of ethics that they feel apply in some way to Arthur’s situation. Then share and discuss.
  • Students should notice that there are several, sometimes contradictory values in the codes that apply to Arthur’s situation. This introduces another meaning of “balance,” namely that journalists often have to balance different values in making decisions about what to cover and how to present it.
  • Present a recent, real-life parallel to Arthur’s situation. In April 2003, The Oregonian ran an arresting front-page photograph of an Iraqi man grieving over family members killed in an air raid, on the same day that news of Pvt. Jessica Lynch’s rescue and the death of an Oregon soldier were reported. “Did Powerful Image Present an Unbalanced View?” by Kelly McBride is an article in the Poynter Institute’s Ethics Journal that also contains comments and an opportunity for students to post their own comments, if you ask them to read the article online.
  • If you are working with the computers, an excellent follow-up is to ask each student to choose another article (each represents a true, recent ethical scenario) from the Poynter Ethics Journal or from Journalism Ethics Cases Online at www.journalism.indiana.edu/ethics. Have students read a case and write a response:
    • How do concerns of fairness or balance arise in this scenario?
    • What competing ethical values need to be balanced?
    • How does the student respond to the dilemma?
  • The written responses may be used for assessment and also for sharing and stimulating further discussion about ethical issues and conflicts.

Follow up:

  • Take one or two current controversies and as a class, practice identifying as many different “stakeholders” or viewpoints as possible. Students may be surprised at how many potential perspectives may exist on an issue. This is good practice for developing sources as well as for analyzing news stories. Then follow that issue for a few weeks in different papers or magazines (assign at least two students to each publication) or broadcast media. Students might be asked to keep a clip file or diary, noting how that controversy was covered, from whose viewpoint, etc.
  • Ask students to bring in a news article or feature on a current event that they consider either a GOOD example of balanced reporting or a POOR example, with a short written summary of their reasons, in preparation for sharing with the class. Tell them to bring in the whole page or issue that the article appeared in, so that the class can also discuss editorial decisions such as how much space or emphasis was given, the headline, etc. Have examples of your own for them to discuss, also, especially examples of different types of balance.
  • Analyze one or more front pages from the same newspaper over a two-week period.
    • Which viewpoints or community interests are represented in the Selection and placement of news?
    • Which viewpoints or groups in the community are NOT represented?
  • The class might choose one current topic – the war in Iraq would make an excellent parallel to the excerpt above – to investigate in terms of how Selected local and national newspapers have or have not achieved balanced coverage over time as well as within articles. A comparison of online U.S. papers with counterparts in other countries for a specific news event might be fruitful as well.
  • Specific topics for investigation include how much space is allocated to women’s vs. men’s sports, especially local high school sports; how often local minorities are portrayed in crime vs. other types of stories, and what images result; business stories vs. labor stories; third party or underdog candidates for an elective office….

Assessment:

  • Written analyses of balance for an individual article or a paper’s coverage of a local issue over time, possibly as journal assignments or to prepare for individual student-led class discussions, which may also be evaluated. Another possibility is distributing copies of a poorly balanced article as a “quiz” and asking students to evaluate it in writing or in small group discussions that you may record.
  • The best assessment will be how well students apply the idea to their own publication, if there is one. Ask the class to review past issues and/or to brainstorm viewpoints within the school community that may have been overlooked; or to take some of the stories they are working on now and discuss, in editorial teams or with the class, whether their range of sources appears sufficiently balanced. Make “balance” a criterion in your rubric for evaluating students news and features, and discuss with the class when this would apply and how it would look.

Materials/Resources:

  • Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars. NY: Vintage, 1995. (paperback edition)
  • McBride, Kelly. “Did Powerful Image Present an Unbalanced View?” Poynter Ethics Journal, April 2003. www.poynter.org
  • Ethics codes: www.asne.org
  • Journalism Ethics Cases Online www.journalism.indiana.edu/Ethics


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