Just the facts please…?

EVAN Davis takes a look at the kinds of choices journalists must make when presenting news. There’s fine line between comment and bias, he admits, but does merely presenting the facts really do a story justice if those facts are incomprehensible to the audience?

Remembering that the “facts” may be true, but already presented to the journalist with a certain emphasis by whoever commissioned them, and that decisions have to made about which facts and figures to use too, it means that “true” objectivity – while a necessary and admirable aspiration – is, in reality, impossible.

Davis takes a look at some guidelines:

Usually (but I stress not always) the best practice is to give an interpretation to a story that conforms to a few simple criteria:

It should not be partisan on an issue that divides the public. (Note, you can be as biased as you like on an issue that does not divide the public: we have relatively few complaints about biased reporting of the national sports teams).

It should give due weight to the body of expert opinion on the subject (we don’t want the idiosyncratic rantings of a particular correspondent).

It should be clear in a report (by the tone, and the form of coverage) whether the reporter is giving a fact, an impression, an obvious interpretation or a personal hypothesis.
Above all, journalists should usually avoid drawing conclusions from their interpretation: how ever useful the audience might find Jeff Randall’s interpretation of British Airways results, the BBC would not encourage him to draw an inference about whether they should buy or sell shares in the company.

  • peteb

    It should not be partisan on an issue that divides the public.

    That’s the most pernicious aspect of any self-declared attempts at balanced reporting.. especially here.

    Quite simply, in some cases, one side of the argument is wrong. In such circumstances, giving both sides of that argument equal weight, or presenting one side without criticism, in a report effectively distorts the coverage.

    But then, that attempted balance has always been more about not alienating half of the potential paying audience rather than speaking truth to power.

    [/idiosyncratic rant]

  • Alan McDonald

    Ditto America, Pete.

  • peteb

    Indeed, Alan.. it’s an insidious ideology.

  • Alan McDonald


    A trick used by the current US administration is to decline to send a government representative to debate an irate citizen on air. Instead, the citizen is faced with some Christian Coalition wingnut. This is the media’s idea of balance.

  • peteb

    To be fair, Alan, that’s just an example of how the power plays the insidious ideology.. and, to be honest, I can’t blame them for exploiting that tendency.

  • aquifer

    In these days of airtime terrorism using ‘news value’ to decide what to print leaves the front page open for the fanatic, and leaves the rest of us no wiser.

    A summary of the legal options available to the PSNI when dealing with sectarian brinkmanship or rioting toddlers would at least be funny, as would asking orangemen how much they would each pay on average to allow a parade at the Whiterock.

    A survey of what ordinary protestant churchgoers think of yesterdays rioting would be interesting.

    Bombs shooting and kiddie riots are just more of the same.