Balance and Related Concepts: A Few Thoughts

William Morgan (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

I have read with interest and some admiration the five papers I was invited to review. Evidently the work of able, intelligent people, each of the papers offers its own thought-provoking angle on the subject of balance.

In more than one instance the papers seem to report pretty conclusively on the errors or misguided attitudes of those whom the authors see as opponents or as part of the problem with which the authors are, however reluctantly, forced to deal. At the same time, the impression tends to be left that the authors of each paper are, in contrast with those they criticize, fair-minded and reasonable people whose logic and objectivity are both unassailable and selflessly devoted to the advancement of human knowledge. And instructive, too.

From them, we learn about the illogical attitudes present in our society. We learn about the poor methodology and unjustified claims of colleagues. And we observe from those whose work or whose organization has been criticized, reactions vehement enough to make several of the teenagers in my family suddenly seem deeply secure and placid by comparison. And throughout, as the convention requires, runs the insistent implication that there is nothing in the least personal about any of this.

In that respect, though I fear they may find the comparison unwelcome, several of these authors, to one extent or another, both in their skills and their self-righteousness, remind me of journalists.

Journalists may have their names in the paper every day. Their faces may be on television every night. But journalists are not gods. They are still only people. If they were gods, they'd be able to find a way of stopping their hair from falling out.

All the same, journalists, like the authors of some of this material, generally seem to work on the assumption that they themselves are just fine, perhaps even quite beyond reproach, and that what really need to be exposed and discussed in detail and at length are the failings and transgressions of everybody else. Of course, that is the way people are.

I don't mean to include anyone who reads these comments in what comes next, but I do feel compelled to include myself when I say that, even in normal life, most people sometimes can behave pretty badly. They tell you things in ways that are designed to mislead or they omit to tell you things it does not suit them for you to hear. When they report to you about events, they tend to state what happened in a way that suits their own purposes, to deflect any blame away from themselves and, if possible, to take credit for anything good. They don't exactly lie, perhaps. But, day in, day out, they are kind of selective, and even self-serving in what they choose to tell.

Most people, in fact, tend to take sides and then to interpret subsequent events and actions in ways that support the side they have taken. And most people, perhaps even all people, simply hate to be wrong and hate even more to admit it when they have been.

Of course, all of the these weaknesses are only human. Admitting an error or guilt is one of the hardest things for any human being to do. And, if people in general find it hard to admit an error, even to entertain the possibility that they may have erred, it sometimes seems to me that journalists and journalistic organizations, like certain professional societies, and, I am now inclined to add, perhaps even some people in the academic world, find it harder still.

It has always seemed to me ironical that those who appear to find it easy to report on the errors and transgressions of others should find it so difficult to do the same about even the possibility of mistakes of their own.

I have had to think about this phenomenon a lot over the years as it relates to journalists and media organizations. I had not thought so much until now about the similar manifestation of human nature in certain academic writing.

I should have done. As I look back now, there were many clues available to me. Even one of Canada's most eminent literary scholars was a prisoner of his own reputation and his own published work in something like this same way. I find myself remembering in particular a long and enjoyable conversation I had about ten years ago with this man. I was genuinely impressed, of course, not just with his erudition but with the sympathetic, imaginative, fresh way he had of looking at literature. But, by the end of the conversation, I remember feeling sorry for him because it had become evident to me as we talked that he felt trapped. His earlier critical work had been so highly regarded and so widely read and studied that, it was clear, he felt he could not now write anything which might even by inference be seen to disagree with or depart from the views and theories that he had already published.

I recognize that it was the understandable attitude of a conscientious man, one who didn't want to sow confusion. But under there somewhere, I can't help feeling, there was also a wish to appear infallible, somehow perfect. Nor can I help feeling that the need to remain true to what he had already written, to go on appearing consistent and, if you like, right, meant that the world was denied the chance to see what this remarkable intellect might have been able to say about some of his earlier literary subject matter when examined from the vantage point of the same fine mind grown older.

It seems to me that if you cannot ever be wrong then you cannot learn and you cannot grow. A friend of mine from university days in Australia, a very able scholar and teacher, has gone through remarkable changes in her outlook on social issues and even literary ones and though it perhaps may make her seem insubstantial in comparison with colleagues who have set their own views in concrete and adhered to and defended them ever since, you do at least feel when you read her work, even though at times you may disagree with her, that you're reading the thought of a real person, one who, like all of us, has grown and changed as a result of experience and the passage of time.

It is human not to want to admit having erred or that one's views, once so firmly stated, were after all susceptible to change. But to me it is much more admirably human, and more credible, to show that one has the wit to identify mistakes and the honesty to admit them. I, for one, am much more likely to trust information I get from a person who will do that than I am to trust information from people who want me to believe that they are always right.

I don't know exactly know why we all seem to have this tendency towards self-righteousness, this need to appear perfect. But I suppose, in the case of anybody who is published, it proceeds at least partly from a fear that if one error or reinterpretation is admitted it will be the beginning of the end of one's entire credibility.

In the case of journalists in particular, it almost seems that they have a collective bad dream that if all the errors were somehow revealed newspapers and newscasts would become not scenes of journalistic triumph and accomplishment but scenes of journalistic humiliation and misery.

Of course the situation is never really as bad as their worst fears would suggest, and we all know that. But, then why are they so insecure? I think part of the answer is that people who go into journalism, while they are just people, are in most cases genuinely conscientious people and they really do want to get everything right. But they also know, from experience, that journalism is a complex, rushed, confusing, highly competitive activity with information coming from dozens of different sources and directions, often having to be taken entirely on trust, and always with the threat of deadlines hanging over one's head. My old friend Michael Nelson, when he was General Manager of Reuters, used to say that Reuters' private motto was "We may not always be first, but at least we're often wrong." But, while they may joke ruefully about it in private, many journalists feel that if even the very possibility of error were admitted to the public it would open a floodgate and release a torrent that could only end in all of journalism and all trust in it being washed completely away.

Anyway, my point is just that the people who do journalism are only human, too, and subject to all the weaknesses and imperfections and insecurities that other humans are prone to, and that they do their jobs under unnerving, awful pressures. Indeed I've said in the past, and I still think it true, that good journalism is actually a triumph over human nature and the pressures of time.

And that, of course, is why we have all of these notions and concepts about which everybody seems to be arguing.

"Objectivity," "balance" and "fairness" are really just words. None of them is easy to define or to guarantee or even to achieve.

If you agree at all with my comments about human nature in general and as it applies to journalism, if not to academic work, you may also agree with me that true objectivity in human endeavours of this kind is almost certainly impossible. I note a bit of a tendency in the social sciences for people to claim that their work or their methods are "objective." This usually seems to be followed by a counter claim from opponents determined to prove just the opposite. I must say from a journalistic point of view that if anyone tells me that they are objective I immediately become especially wary. They may not intend to mislead, but if they think they can be objective, especially on a continuous basis, it probably means that they are already misleading themselves. And that doesn't augur very well for their reliability as an information source. In fact, objectivity in journalism, perhaps as in academic work, seems to me to be at the very worst a dangerous myth and at best a distant and mostly unattained goal, towards which we strive when we remember. I even tend to doubt that the word has a place in a book of journalism policy, being probably unachievable and certainly unverifiable.

"Balance" is tricky, too. In part, as these papers effectively show, that is because balance has so many definitions and takes so many forms. We know, too, that people can try conscientiously to apply it and still not achieve the intended effect.

In the case of the Meech Lake accord, for example, journalists thought that by airing a balanced selection of views from across the traditional political spectrum they would be providing the public with a reasonable representation of the opinions they needed to hear on this subject. Unfortunately, the journalists and managers involved had failed to take into account that, because ratification of the accord was supported not only by the Prime Minister but by the leaders of the two Federal Opposition parties and by almost all of the Premiers, relying on the expression of views by politicians on this particular subject resulted in a failure to give adequate representation to the widespread and powerful anti-Meech Lake sentiment which existed in many parts of the country. It also resulted, perhaps even justifiably, in journalism organizations being included in the public backlash that was aimed at the political leaders.

I think critics of the word "balance" are right also when they express concern that at times pursuit of it results only in our hearing the viewpoints that support the status quo or that it results, as often interpreted by journalistic organizations, in merely setting the two extreme views on a controversy against each other and paying little or no attention to representing the vast majority of us who are suffering various forms of well-intentioned ambivalence somewhere in the middle.

"Fairness" is kind of a nice word. Seems more down-to-earth and possible than "objectivity." In the end, thought, it, too, is somewhat difficult to achieve and verifiable only on a subjective basis.

But it seems to me that the reason we continue to use these words and others like them is not because they necessarily can be fully achieved or fully verified but because they can serve a useful function as a reminder to journalists and to the public of what journalistic organizations and their staff should at least be setting their sights upon and trying to achieve. They remind us that journalists continually need to abstract themselves from their subject matter and try as hard as they can to set their personal views and loyalties aside. They help us to keep in mind that in a sense what we truly want is a negative...the absence of certain failings and inappropriate characteristics in our journalism.

We don't want to hear only one side. We don't want the journalists using their unique position to distort the story or to promote a view or a cause of their own. We don't want them to be unfair to anyone. And we don't want the journalists, or anyone else, to exert an undue influence because of their special position or their wealth or whatever other advantage they may enjoy.

Unfortunately, all of that, though most of us would agree with most of it, tends to sound both negative and clumsy. So, over time, people have tried to get their reasonable expectations across in a more positive way through these somewhat abstract concepts like "fairness," "objectivity" and "balance," each, as I have said, in its own way difficult to define, and even more difficult to achieve or to verify.

Because of these difficulties I think that we shouldn't get too literal about these concepts or expend too much energy on arguments about precise definitions of them, arguments which are often self-serving. We know roughly what they mean, which, in a less-than-perfect world, is not a bad start. The more important thing to recognize is that they represent lofty ideals and serve to remind us how small and human, how prone to error and anxiety and self-delusion we can be.

They may remain beyond our reach these ideals. We may not even know for sure exactly what they are made of. But if we remember that they are there, and if we always keep an eye on them, they can help us, like the stars helped the ancient navigators, to find our way safely through a dark, difficult and dangerous world.


The opinions in this commentary are those of the author and they do not necessarily represent an official position of the CBC.

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