Balance Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Marc Raboy (Laval University)

"Balance" in media is at once a policy objective and a journalistic value. The link between these two aspects of what is, at root, an abstract concept, is highly problematic, as the four papers and preceding commentary in this issue amply illustrate.

On first reading, these articles appear to present an eclectic mix, but upon closer scrutiny, we see that they cover a range of approaches to the notion of balance that one finds increasingly in media studies with respect to similar constructs.

More important, the evident problems encountered when one tries to grapple with a notion such as this one informs our understanding of the limitations of "news" media as social actors. We shall return to this crucial question later.

Three of the articles (Miljan; Hackett, Gilsdorf and Savage; Block) deal with balance as a journalistic value, and the other two (Cook and Ruggles; Strutt and Hissey) discuss its merit as a policy objective. But of the five, only Miljan treats balance as an actually existing thing, as something that can be grasped and squeezed, measured and assessed. The debate between Miljan and Hackett et al (and, tangentially, with Block as well) and, more substantially, the distinction between this debate and the approach taken by the other authors, goes to the heart of the matter.

Miljan's is not just another academic article; it is a justification of a political project, the Fraser Institute's National Media Archive, set up as a platform from which to intervene in media criticism and, ultimately, influence media policy.

Miljan's piece provides a fine example of reification--"the act of regarding an abstraction as a material thing" (Bullock and Stallybrass, 1977, p. 534). "Balance" is an abstract concept, yet Miljan's thesis is based on the assumption that something called balance actually exists in the real world. This thing is deemed to be good, and is, in her view, a characteristic whose presence or absence is a measurement of how well a given media outlet is doing its job.

The project discussed in Miljan's paper--the Fraser Institute's National Media Archive monthly publication On Balance--uses "manifest content analysis" to evaluate media treatment of "major public policy issues." The unit of analysis examined in these studies is "the statement." "Objectivity" is assured by having the same material coded by researchers "hired on the basis of their differing political and educational backgrounds."

The other contributors to this issue, in contrast, contest the conceptual validity and the methodological worthiness of the notion of balance, and argue that debates over questions like balance are inevitably ideological. That view is shared by this author.

The polemic engaged in by Miljan and Hackett et al bears out this key point. These articles demonstrate the politicized nature of debates over methodology. Methodological choices are political; the truth claims of research are ideologically motivated.

Basing their critique of Miljan on a generation of news studies rooted in the phenomenological sociology of Shutz and others, Hackett et al argue that something like "balance" can not be objectively measured, but that it must be seen as a relational notion. Hence, the limitations of the type of content analyses performed by the Fraser Institute's On Balance, however rigorously conducted.

Block takes this argument further, arguing that the debate over balance is ideologically based. Block engages directly with the Fraser Institute's economic assumptions, implying that there are certain objective truths about the world (presumably, he would agree with the statement "The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is a bad thing"), and that arguments about "balance" are just so much mumbo-jumbo for camouflaging that reality and the social conflicts that it engenders.

The papers by Strutt and Hissey, and by Cook and Ruggles, meanwhile, show that there are clear and important policy implications at stake here as well. Both pairs of authors see the debate on balance as diversionary. Strutt and Hissey emphasize the importance of struggles over meaning, and the semantic concessions that go hand in hand with a strategic choice to engage on the liberal pluralist terrain of journalistic ethics. Cook and Ruggles, meanwhile, see the more concrete question of access to media playing the role that is often rhetorically ascribed to balance: a role of promoting equity and democracy through media.

The debate on "balance" is tied to another, broader, one that lies at the very centre of policy discussion, particularly with respect to television: the debate over "quality" (see, e.g., Japan Broadcasting Corporation, 1991). After years of observing policy-makers skate around the issue of quality, while self-interested groups of every stripe invoke it as a means of legitimating their own interest positions, scholars have begun to agree on the view that "Quality is not a characteristic. It is a relation between a characteristic and a set of values" (Rosengren et al, 1991, p. 45). In short, if we are to talk about "quality" in media product, we must be prepared to engage with the values and social position of those taking part in the debate. The same must be said for the notion of "balance".

If Miljan is right, and balance is something objective and measureable, then the starting point must be agreement on a definition of balance. But such definitions do not fall from the sky. They are inevitably the result of discursive struggle between socially positioned actors. Something like balance is always in the eye of the beholder (or social scientist).

As Hackett et al. point out, media are not merely reflectors and observers of political life, they are also actors ("political players and definers of reality"). Increasingly, their action is driven by economics as well as political and sociocultural motivations. The economic constraints of newsgathering and dissemination have become more determining in the quality of information than the politics of the news institutions--indeed, in spite of superficial political differences, all major news corporations, public and private, are increasingly subject to the same economic constraints. (Miljan, in her paper, mistakenly claims at one point that the CBC is "completely" funded with public money (p. ). Would that it were so! The fact is, CBC television must compete for advertising dollars with privately owned commercial broadcasters).

Thus, as Hackett et al. point out, if one wants to say anything significant about the way media deal with news, one must go beyond analysis of the "manifest" content of the text, and examine the highly contextual conditions of production and reception as well. Indeed, the importance of the text-context relationship has become paradigmatic to media studies during the past decade.

Strutt and Hissey clearly show the politicized nature of a term such as balance: it is a reformist notion, that presumes the perfectability of existing structures, institutions and practices. A struggle for balance can be a strategic political choice (this would explain, for example, why an organization like the Fraser Institute would engage on this terrain). But a politics addressed to changing power relations will be less interested in something like balance, according to Strutt and Hissey.

This is a somewhat mechanistic view of social change and could lead to a static view of society. Without accepting the liberal pluralist view of the world as one "in which relatively equal groups and individuals compete for power and influence," one can not so easily opt out of society and still claim to be a social actor. With respect to media, one can, of course, choose to cut them out of one's life altogether. One can put one's energy into creating marginal alternatives, or accept that media are dominant social institutions and focus on criticizing them. But it is difficult to see why these approaches should be considered incompatible with efforts to influence the mainstream by applying pressure at the centre--in policy debates and professional struggles, to cite but two important areas often eschewed by social activists (see Bruck and Raboy, 1989). The inclusion in the new Canadian broadcasting act of provisions recognizing the rights and aspirations of women and aboriginal people with respect to broadcasting, while affirming the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society, should attest to this (Broadcasting Act, 1991, 3(1)d.iii).

The Canadian broadcasting act, Cook and Ruggles remind us, discusses balance, but in such a way as to emphasize its systemic character. Thus, dixit the Act: "The programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should be varied and comprehensive, providing a balance of information, enlightenment and entertainment for men, women and children of all ages, interests and tastes" (Broadcasting Act, 1991, 3(1)i.i.). In other words, balance should be sought across the entire range of programming; by implication, any attempt to evaluate balance in broadcasting ought to be systemic as well.

At the same time, however, other sections of the act ascribe objectives to broadcasting which can be read as referring to the balance value. For example, "The programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should... provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern" (Broadcasting Act, 1991, 3(1)i.iv.).

On the other hand, individual broadcasters are expected to provide programming "of high standard," and are said to have a "responsibility" for what they broadcast (Broadcasting Act, 1991, 3(1)g., 3(1)h.). This has nothing to do with "balance" as such, and indeed, provides quite a bit of leeway for debate on what a broadcaster should and should not do. The "high standard" clause is central to the debate on program "quality," while "responsibility" implies the subjecting of broadcasting to general legal constraints (See Raboy, 1991).

The mandate of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, specifically, imposes no obligation of "balance" similar to the one imputed by the National Media Archive--although it hamstrings the corporation in several important ways. The act imposes eight obligations on the CBC, none of which have anything to do with balance narrowly defined: CBC programming should 1) be predominantly and distinctively Canadian; 2) serve the special needs of Canada's regions; 3) contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression; 4) be in English and in French; 5) be of equivalent quality in English and in French; 6) contribute to shared national consciousness and identity; 7) be made available throughout Canada; and 8) reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada (Broadcasting Act, 1991, 3(1)m.). In a strictly legal sense, any discussion of CBC balance must necessarily be grounded in this mandate. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for continuing to support public service broadcasting with tax dollars is that it provides systemic balance in an environment increasingly skewed towards the imperatives of commercial broadcasting.

The CBC's own internal journalistic policy handbook, meanwhile, includes a specific discussion of the role of balance, which is to "supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other points of view." Significantly, while the CBC interprets its mandate from Parliament as being to provide a "balanced and comprehensive service of information," "balance" is not one of its journalistic principles per se: these are, rather, "accuracy" (the conformity to reality of the information presented), "integrity" (the truthfulness of the information presented), and "fairness" (the equitable and ethical presentation of the information) (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1988, pp. 5-9).

these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance which must characterize CBC's information programs," states the journalistic policy (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1988, p. 6).

But while "balance" can be a legitimate (and, certainly, a legitimating) guiding principle for a publicly funded broadcaster, the public's interest in these times is more likely to be served by a diversity and range in programming and accessible points of view. Systemic balance, like quality, can be approached by providing media users with the broadest possible set of truly distinctive viewpoints, across a variety of program types and formats, and, through the judicious employment of additional channels--new avenues in which they can add their own.

References

Broadcasting Act. (1991). Statutes of Canada, 38-39 Elizabeth II, chapter 11.

Bruck, P. A., & Raboy, M. (1989). The challenge of democratic communication. In M. Raboy & P. A. Bruck (Eds.), Communication for and against democracy (pp. 3-16). Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Bullock, A., & Stallybrass, O. (Eds.). (1977). The Fontana dictionary of modern thought. London: Fontana/Collins.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (1988). Journalistic policy (revised edition). Montreal: CBC Enterprises.

Japan Broadcasting Corporation. (1991). Quality assessment of broadcast programming (theme issue). Studies of Broadcasting, 27.

Raboy, M. (1991). Legal, institutional and research perspectives on broadcast program quality in Canada. Studies of Broadcasting, 27, 81-112.

Rosengren, K. E., Carlsson, M., & Tagerud, Y. (1991). Quality in programming: Views from the north. Studies of Broadcasting, 27, 21-80.



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