Public sentiment is a poor gauge of the need for balance

After the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in favour of same-sex marriage, several prominent US news organisations nailed their colours to the mast.

The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Mashable added the rainbow flag, symbol of gay pride, to their Twitter avatars. The generally staid CNN sent out a tweet whose sentiment was unmistakable: under a map of the US showing that gay marriage is now legal in every state, it said: “Every. Single. State. #lovewins”, with a link to its report on the ruling.

Clearly, some news organisations felt no need to stay neutral on this. Though gay marriage remains contentious in the US, public opinion has shifted considerably.

This raises the question of whether – or, perhaps more precisely, when – media organisations should choose sides in matters of public controversy. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, told Politico’s On Media blog: “We firmly believe that, for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism and LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] equality, there are not two sides.”

But, that said, activism needs to “follow the lead of our editors and reporters, who come out of a tradition of rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first”.

Usually editors are obliged to give attention to both sides of a public controversy, particularly in reportage. When accusations surface that the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) has spent millions on trains too tall for our tracks, Prasa’s right to respond is clearly recognised.

But all news organisations have some issues they regard as being beyond debate.

In South Africa, apartheid and racism are in this position. Rightly, you will not find an editor who feels the need to balance a story by including the views of apartheid apologists.

Some views are specific to particular sectors of the media. The right-wing US media, for instance, tend to see conflict in wide swaths of the world as a “clash of civilisations”, part of an Islamic onslaught on the West and its values. Anyone with a different view is seen as part of a lunatic fringe.

In such cases, it is easy to see the problem. But all media make assumptions.

US media commentator Jay Rosen speculated in a recent tweet whether it might be possible to classify news organisations by the things they see as not having two sides.

Sometimes, the building of a new consensus unfolds in clear view. The developing US view on gay rights and climate change are examples. It is now generally accepted that the climate is changing and that a major factor driving it is human activity. The denialist view still has proponents, but its influence is waning.

When he was president, Thabo Mbeki based policy on a denialist view of HIV. For a time, these views had some currency, but as time went on the consensus view hardened, driven by clear scientific evidence and a concerted civil society campaign.

The shift affected the news coverage. Early on, denialist views of HIV were treated with some respect, but with time came to be seen as both dangerous and ridiculous. They were relegated to the sidelines.

Newspapers began to lampoon Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, then the health minister, calling her “Dr No” for her refusal to supply antiretrovirals to people living with HIV. At that point, it was obvious that the attempt to push public discourse into a denialist direction had failed. When politicians are left clinging to untenable positions, it is not long before even people in their own party take against them.

Where does an issue such as Nkandla fit? Police Minister Nathi Nhleko has launched a spirited effort to reclaim the public debate, but it seems unlikely to persuade many. Already, discomfort about the official narrative felt by people in the ANC is spilling into the open.

Editors need a clear sense of the ebb and flow of public discussion if they are to gauge the tone with which different views need to be treated. At the same time, they need to maintain sufficient critical distance to be able to interrogate the general view with rigour, even if it seems to be a real step forward.

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