The truth about false balance
The Ombud speaks out on when the journalistic ideal of fairness is co-opted.
The media covering the Gaza crisis are caught in the crossfire, whether they are physically in the area or not. Accusations of bias are rife from both the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli camps. It is possible to respond to criticism of this kind by claiming smugly that it proves everything is in order: if both sides are unhappy, we must be doing something right.
Actually, that’s lazy thinking. One side can simply be wrong. Or both sides can be a bit wrong – and that’s only the beginning of the range of possibilities.
Journalists like the idea of balance. A key requirement of fair reporting is to make sure you give both sides of the story. As far as it goes, that’s a useful notion. It is important to represent the complexity of stories, and recognise that there are two – or, more usually, several – perspectives is pretty basic.
But it’s also important to recognise the limits of the idea. There are situations where the weight of evidence is so strong on one side that giving the opposite view equal weight just distorts reality.
It’s called false balance, and it has been given increasing attention.
A report commissioned by the BBC Trust recently criticised the corporation for too rigidly applying the editorial principle of impartiality in the context of reporting climate change. Unqualified sceptics should not be given as much airtime as scientists representing the overwhelming scientific consensus, the report said.
Writing in the Guardian, Bob Garfield of the United States’s National Public Radio programme On the Media was more direct: “False equivalency – the practice of giving equal media time and space to demonstrably invalid positions for the sake of supposed reportorial balance – is dishonest, pernicious and cowardly.”
South African journalism has its own examples to draw on: there was no way apartheid should have been covered as if it was morally equivalent to the democratic movement, for instance. (Of course, the mainstream media often did, but that’s another story.) More recently, Aids denialists received far more attention than they deserved during the time when the government of then-president Thabo Mbeki flirted with these views. Since then, they have disappeared into well-deserved obscurity.
I’m not therefore going to argue that, in reporting on Gaza, journalists should be taking sides in a simple way. The situation is truly complex, as well as probably more deeply polarised than almost any other conflict on Earth. Writing propaganda is not helpful – there’s quite enough of that around.
What is useful is to report the story as critically and carefully as possible. Solid reporting is more useful than opinion. That is a tall order in a war zone: it is not exactly easy to test claims by the Israeli Defence Forces, for instance, that a particular building they have attacked was used to launch rockets or was home to Hamas militants. It is even harder for South African media, being far from the action and relying heavily on the wire agencies. It is hard, but not impossible: at the least, editors need to look out for reports that try to look for evidence and that interrogate the various claims.
And there are local stories to be told. After all, many South Africans are deeply affected by the events in the Middle East.
I thought the Mail & Guardian‘s special focus on the impact of Gaza in South Africa a few weeks ago was interesting and innovative. It reported on a range of new perspectives of the way different South Africans were experiencing the conflict, from people who have lost family members in Gaza to young South Africans anxious to fight on Israel’s side.
An approach careful reporting must take into account is the enormous imbalance of power and suffering between the two sides. The numbers are stark: at the time of writing, more than 2 100 Palestinians have been killed, compared with 67 Israelis. The Palestinians are mostly civilians, the Israelis almost all soldiers.
Yes, rockets have been fired at Israel in large numbers, but have caused little damage. The devastation visited by Israel’s vastly superior weaponry on Gaza’s people and its civilian infrastructure is simply enormous.
Nobody is innocent here, certainly not Hamas. Important international voices from the United Nations onwards have criticised both sides but have been particularly critical of how Israel conducted itself. The devastation visited on Gaza is so disproportionate that it is hard to avoid the impression that it is intended as collective punishment.
Certainly, the claim that this campaign can bring security to Israelis flies in the face of the experience of the past decades. It did not work before, and it won’t now. Ultimately, only a just political solution will bring peace and security. But that seems very far away.
For the moment, the asymmetry of force and suffering needs to be reflected in coverage. Anything else is false balance.
The Mail & Guardian‘s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have a complaint you can contact him at [email protected] or phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message.