Weights and Measures: Issues of Balance in Media Content

Liora Salter (York University)

Some time ago, I gave an assignment to my Language and Politics class of determining whether Robocop (the first one) was a film of the left or the right. I reasoned that the imagery of the film is an ode to high tech, machismo and violence. But the script undermines this same ideology. Moreover, the film offers as cogent a critique of the military industrial complex as is ever found in popular movies. My purpose in this exercise was to force students to confront their all too casual categorization of political issues, ideas and images, and in doing so to raise questions about the assignment of any media content -- text or image -- to one side or the other of the political spectrum.

I recall this exercise now not because I want to cast aside the categories of left and right, or to argue that in the post-Yeltsin age, there is a necessary convergence of political philosophy. Nor will I suggest that balance is to be achieved by carefully assigning equal time to the left and the right, if not within the confines of a single film, then in the pages of a newsletter or across the program schedule of a public television network. Neither I nor my students of the time accept the premise of the end of ideology, nor of "truth" as a matter of weights and measures among competing world views. Instead I want to raise questions about the concept of balance, and to argue that it offers the same intellectual and political challenge as did the class assignment on Robocop.

Let me begin now by saying that we have come a long way in recent years towards understanding how seemingly neutral texts become impregnated with the attitudes and political agendas of various groups -- normally dominant ones -- within society. With considerable methodological sophistication, we have examined everything from film to news stories. And in doing so, we now understand that this process is not necessarily a matter of injecting overt bias, politically "loaded" terminology, or censorship. Texts are imbued with attitudes and agendas by virtue of how their narrative is structured (how the story is told), their use of pronouns, their reliance upon particular kinds of verbs, the preponderance of active or passive voice, their iconographic content or their imagery. Moreover, in any text, what has been omitted is often as important as what appears on the page, or the characters on the screen. The omissions, narrative techniques, word choices, icons and imagery create a silent form of censorship, no less powerful than that of the state agencies. These are what renders the text "biased."

There are now few limits to our capacity to "unpack" the various elements that comprise any text, and the meanings that emerge from the relationships between them. Moreover, we also know now that even this is not enough, and that meaning is created in the final analysis only in the interaction between the text and the reader's understanding of it. We know that communication involving written materials, television and film should not be considered to be a "one way street." In other words, we readily assume that communication is always a matter of dialogue, even when one is dealing with such seemingly static entities as texts, television or films. This too extends our capacity to understand "bias" and undermines any claim that texts (or their authors) make to being objective.

On first glance, this seems to be what "balance" is all about. It is true that the search for balance begins with the attempt to uncover the multiplicity of meanings in any text that make it amenable to coverage of some issues, some people's views, some political agendas and not others. In this context, we spot gendered language, omission of particular points of view or voices, or techniques to disguise the fact and influence of authorship. We identify the imagery lurking within a seemingly neutral commentary on environmental activism or a technical discussion of nuclear warheads. We see how particular ideas are given priority status by virtue of where they are located within a text, or on a screen, or though various camera angles. We seek out the associations with prevailing or deeply-rooted social images, and explore how the meanings in any text are compounded by seemingly unrelated emotions, icons or cultural mythologies.

With all this, however, we have not really come to terms with the issue of balance yet. To be sure, at the end of the study we can convincingly dismiss claims that any text is neutral. But the term "balance" implies something other than a lack of neutrality, something more than the existence of bias. Its use implies that there is a point of reference against which the text has been measured and found wanting. It implies that there is another side to the story that begs telling, a different perspective required before the text can be considered truthful, valuable or acceptable. Herein lies the problem. For no matter how rigorous, nothing in the methods of establishing the "bias" of a text itself provides the point of reference against which the text will be assessed, either by ourselves as analysts or by its readers, as "balanced." In other words, while bias is a characteristic of all texts, balance is a matter of assessment according to criteria that lie outside the parameters of the text.

To make this point more clearly, let me take the example of the front page coverage of the daily newspaper. We can easily discern that the concerns of women are seldom addressed on it in any comprehensive manner. With more sophisticated methodology, it is also possible to argue convincingly that women's voices have been "silenced" in the description of events -- including rape--that is reflected there. Furthermore, with a relatively simple research protocol, we can demonstrate that most events have been described using gendered language. And by using semiotic techniques, we can identify the battle imagery that is often used to portray life dramas. But what is the significance of these observations? After all, it is equally possible to argue that women are seldom either newsmakers or spokespeople for the reported events (in other words, that the problem is not caused by the newspaper which only reports the news); that conflict between the superpowers is fundamentally gender-neutral, even if the terminology is not; and that the use of conflict imagery is unfortunate but appropriate when much of what is expected of news is indeed the coverage of conflict. In other words, using the techniques for analysing texts, we can demonstrate the complexity of bias within the front page of the newspaper. But without looking beyond the printed page, this is all we can demonstrate.

If we want to go further, and speak about "balance," or about the implications of bias, or about changes that should be made so that the coverage will be more "fair" or "representative" or "adequate to the life situation of the readers" or "informative," we will have to establish some criteria by which we can judge "fairness," "representativeness," "adequacy" or "relevancy." In other words, we will have to reach beyond the confines of even the most sophisticated content analysis into a more broadly based analysis of social relations and social values.

In fact, when we speak about balance, we do this all the time, albeit implicitly for the most part. We say that the CBC or CBS is "not balanced" and from this vantage point, we can then demonstrate that some points of view get more airtime than others. In doing so, we are arguing that this situation is neither "fair" nor "equitable" according to the criteria that we have established for determining both. Or we begin with the assumption that the state tramples on the rights of individuals, and only then assess media content in terms of its role in facilitating or reversing this situation. Alternatively, we believe that the media are "not balanced" because there are too few black faces, too little labour coverage, not enough background information or analysis, or because it includes inappropriate or unacceptable portrayals of classes of people. In say all these things, we are saying something more than that the media are biased. We are contending that there is, and should be, a standard against which media content should be assessed irrespective of its bias. We are saying that something is wrong.

William Connolly has a concept that will be useful for coming to terms with balance, as opposed to bias. As Strutt and Hissey noted in their article, Connolly refers to some terms as "essentially contested concepts." By this he means that particular words become the battleground for conflicts over competing paradigms or analyses. Such words are "essential" in as much as they represent key concepts within a paradigm, and convey not only the main reference points that lie behind the analysis, but also a standpoint from which other paradigms will be judged. Such terms are contested because no agreement is possible with respect to their definition. One example that Connolly uses is "democracy," a term that defies definition precisely because it is so central to the paradigmatic and ideological conflicts that take place within the political arena. Each group using the term "democracy" stakes its claim to a definition that falls within its own analysis, and uses the term as means of judging all competing analyses or paradigms. What is at issue in the conflict over definition is a matter of social analysis not semantics.

Extending Connolly's analysis, I suspect that balance is an essentially contested concept. It is used, in the same manner that "democracy" is used, as a single term quite differently by various groups to reflect their conflicting analyses of social relations, social values and media content. It is used to stake a claim about the proper content of media and its role in society, a claim that really cannot be understood except as part of a paradigm. It is used, moreover, as a means of judging not only media content, but various other analyses of it.

If balance is an essentially contested concept, it makes little sense to search for some consistent definition of it, or some points of agreement within the articles that make up the collection in the special issue on balance in this journal. Each offered considerable insights into the way that media content can be biased, and these insights, taken together, do advance our knowledge about the techniques for the study of media. But when their various authors turned their attention to the problem of balance, the articles can no longer be read as a dialogue. The articles "talked past" each other. They could no longer be understood as part of a single enterprise. In discussing balance--as opposed to bias -- each article offered an analysis grounded in a fundamentally different paradigm dealing (among other things) with the proper role and content of media.

There could have been no agreement about what constitutes balance, because the various authors wrote from different standpoints, considered different questions to be important; had different analyses of the media and its problems; conceived of media content in different terms; and used fundamentally different standards for assessing "fairness," "representativeness" and "adequacy." Balance was simply a keyword, and a method for deflecting attention from the paradigmatic conflict towards some strategic initiatives for reform that each author considered to be important.

By suggesting that competing paradigms are at issue in the discussion of balance, I am not suggesting that all paradigms are equally adequate or useful. I am not arguing that perspective (or standpoint) is a matter of personal choice much in the manner that one might choose laundry soap at the supermarket. Simply, it should be recognized that the conflict over the meaning of balance that was reflected in these pages is not a definitional one, and that it cannot be resolved by compromise or by the techniques of even the most sophisticated content analysis (which, as I have indicated, measure bias, but not balance). Indeed, it is a conflict that extends far beyond the research reported here or media studies in general. That said, I do think that something is to be gained from the explorations of balance in this journal, and something new is to be said to further the discussion.

Let me return to Robocop. What was interesting about this movie is that it offered something to both the left and the right simultaneously, and for this reason it could not be categorized by easy reference to conventional political terminology. Moreover, in analysing it, students were forced to ask themselves why they unthinkingly assigned violence and high technology to the right, and concern for corporate excess and environmental degradation to the left. In fact, the most perceptive of the students commented upon the multiple inversions of conventional logic that are used within the film to confound the audience's expectations. These students were under no illusion that all members of the audience would "read" the film in terms of these inversions, but they did argue that the inversions were themselves a technique to enhance the dramatic tension in the film even for its most literal minded viewers and that the inversions had a significant effect upon the film's content for all of its audience.

I believe that the debate about balance can do the same for us as the film did in the context in which it was analysed. First of all, the discussion of balance can make us re-examine the conventional categories and logic of political controversies. This is no less important for the left as it is for the right, no less valuable for feminists as it is for the sometimes liberal-minded CRTC. After all, what does "freedom of choice" (a term used very frequently in discussions about media content and its regulation) mean if it is simultaneously used in cable company advertisements, by the feminist lobby for decriminalizing abortion, by the groups (not the feminist lobby) that support the use of reproductive technologies to enhance fertility, by the Reform Party, and in discussions of the democracy in the Labour Party in Britain by its most militant wing? On what basis do we (putting aside the question of media) assign environmentalists to the left or to the right? Why are technology and nuclear power usually considered issues of the right, and sex role stereotyping of the left? The controversy over balance assumes that we know the answer to these questions and that "all is well" within the political lexicons within which we normally operate. It assumes that only "balance" is a problem. Surely there is more to discuss than this, and the controversy over balance -- at its core, a controversy over paradigms and their key concepts and categories -- is an excellent place to begin this other examination.

Second, Robocop is a very conventional mass media product. It is not very different from the front pages of the newspaper or the television newscast or the advertisement, or the sitcom. If Robocop contains mixed messages, layers of meaning, and inversions of perspective, we might reasonably expect that media content also does so more generally. The problem with media studies --including its most straightforward variants like content analysis and its more complex sisters such as discourse analysis -- it that it begins with the assumption that there is one prevailing or dominant theme and perspective to every story, and that all of the elements in the production contribute to it. What if this is not the case? What if the very appeal of mass media lies in there being multiple conflicting stories, values and messages in almost every case, such that the audience can "mix and match," picking up on inversions and ironies (or not) depending upon their personal, class, ideological, gender and social predispositions.

Again, I should not be misunderstood as arguing that the content is in the eyes of the beholder who "reads" what he or she wants, regardless of the intentions of the producer. I have made it clear that media content is biased, and that increasingly sophisticated techniques of analysis are assisting us in identifying the elements of such bias. Rather, because the controversy over balance requires us to step back from the identification of bias, to assess the implications of media content (and its various biases) and to address paradigmatic issues, it also requires us to be much more tentative about the actual content of the message, particularly as it is appreciated and acknowledged by members of the audience.

For example, take another look at Robocop. To be sure, it would be hard to claim that Robocop embodies a feminist manifesto, but in the context of a film such as this one with its own version of a mainstream audience, is the portrayal of the woman as colleague and partner sexist or not? This is not a question that can be answered easily. It depends upon an analysis of sexism as much as it does on the putative content of the film. And it depends upon the evocative content of the film, which is never linear or straightforward. In spite of the film's bias, in other words, we will see it as "unbalanced" (or sexist, in this example) depending upon how we understand sexism, on one hand, and upon the images that have proved "telling" for us when we conduct the assessment, on the other.

Finally, almost all of the articles in the special issue on balance dealt with the CRTC, and its regulation (or lack of regulation) of program content. Each in its own way built a convincing case that something is amiss in the current situation. Each invoked a standard, against which media content was measured, and found the CRTC had failed to regulate on the basis of it. But what is missing from the discussion of balance here and elsewhere is a pragmatic program for action. By action, I specifically do not mean the proposals of the Fraser Institute or MediaWatch. As these proposals are presently cast, they constitute strong competing voices in a public lobbying process. They invite an analysis of public policy that see policy (and the actions of the CRTC) simply as a result of competing interest group pressures.

By action, I mean a legislative and regulatory framework that would allow the CRTC to shape program content in light of its public interest objectives, while at the same time allow the CRTC to deal with the troublesome issues raised by agency control over programming. One can, as Cook and Ruggles noted, see the heavy hand of ideological predisposition in the CRTC's response to CFRO and religious broadcasting, but how would they have the CRTC design and effect a better policy on balance? I know they have given considerable thought to this question, as indeed have all of the authors of the articles in the special issue. Having now documented the paradigmatic conflict that lies at the heart of the issue of balance so ably in the special issue, these authors might well now debate matters about which they can be some resolution. I invite them to put their proposals on the table, for I am convinced that in the final analysis, the debate about these proposals will be the most fruitful one of all.



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