What’s the problem with the “b word”?

Balance. It’s the word of the week in the continuing story of why the University of Minnesota pulled a Bell Museum-sponsored documentary about pollution in the Mississippi River.

“I’m not a scientist in this particular area. I was just looking at balance, and it seemed unbalanced,” a university official told the Minnesota Daily.

Undefined, however, is the word, “balanced,” and what it looks like.

It’s a word that has caused more controversy in recent years, although most of it surrounds stories about climate change. Many of those who believe climate change is a scientific fact, resent attempts to present assertions that is not. Balance obscures consensus, they argue.

Balance is what has led to the dominance “he said/she said” news programming. In this particular case, a documentary is not journalism. But would balance — some of those who viewed the film didn’t think alternative farming methods should have gotten so much attention — change the meaning?

“The world is not a balanced place. Stories that we cover today are increasingly complicated, they’re complex. The truth and falsity of information is difficult to know. It’s up to journalists to discern these distinctions when possible… to let viewers, readers, and listeners know how much they don’t know,” Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review told NPR’s Talk of the Nation during a 2006 show on the subject.

What does balance look like to you? Is it equal time? Should the documentary producer — or journalist — present all sides and let you figure it out?

  • Martha

    I think it’s ridiculous to hold journalists or producers – or anyone – to a standard of ‘presenting all sides’. This is impossible. It is up to the reader/watcher to think critically and search for multiple sides of the story and not trust everything they read, see or hear. That said, everyone should act in good faith – and state their biases if it is interfering with their ability to present facts. But I’m resigned to that not-always/only-rarely happening. What gets my goat is that ‘balanced’ is a buzzword to get away with presenting competing biases (not facts, not realities) under a guise of ‘fairness’.

  • Facts are not balanced.

    Or, if that is too offensive–a documentary is a point of view. It doesn’t have to be “balanced”.

    Should a documentary on Stalin be forced to tell the “good things” about Stalin if it focuses on the quasi- genocidal policies he inflicted on the Soviet Union?

    If you don’t like, say, Michael Moore’s documentaries–well, make one of your own.

  • TJ

    If one side says 2+2=4, and one side says 2+2=5, some of these people would write a “balanced” story that concludes that 2+2 is somewhere between 4 and 5.

  • Ken Paulman

    The problem with climate change coverage is that journalists routinely use non-scientists as sources to provide “balance” to the views of scientists. This reduces the analysis of experts to mere opinion.

    Imagine if historians and doctors were subjected to the same treatment.

  • tired

    Steinbeck should have been forced to provide some balance before publishing Cannery Row.

  • Curt C.

    I don’t want balance, I want accuracy. Sadly that looks more and more like advocacy journalism today, because there are committed PR forces to managing the narrative on all the important issues, and they’re so good at it, that responsible journalists have to actively challenge them, and not give them carte blanche to spout their misleading “facts” for half the story length.

  • Zebulun

    If news is going to be “balanced,” it should at least be an accurately weighted or proportional representation, borrowing from the concepts of statistical analysis.

  • Susan WB

    I agree with Curt. I don’t want artificial “balance,” I want an accurate representation of the situation – facts placed in meaningful context.

    If there is real, contentious debate among scientists (or professionals of any stripe) who work in the same field, then a pursuit of accuracy will necessarily lead to presenting all sides of the issue. If, however, there is scientific evidence or hard-won experiential knowledge on one side, and opinion or belief/disbelief on the other, portraying each as equal is not “balancing,” it’s distorting. It’s equating reliable information (“this is what we know”) with opinion (“this is what we believe”). Those two things are NOT the same and should not be portrayed that way in the desire to be “balanced”. If, as I once heard a comedian say, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” then tough! It’s reality! Not liking something doesn’t make it untrue. (Of course this runs the other way as well. Sometimes reality has a conservative bias, and the people on the left also need to swallow the fact that sometimes reality doesn’t match up with what they believe.)

    Furthermore, I agree with Paul that a documentary is not the same as a news story. The whole point of a documentary is to tell a story from a particular perspective. When did we start expecting documentaries to be balanced?