The balance issue
By Judi Whetstine
A reader complained about a guest column in October and part of a Nov. 18 Pro/Con column Pro/Con column denying climate change because, she said, “the reality of climate change has been settled, for the vast majority of climate experts.” She was critical of the conservative think tank columnist. The opposing columnist on climate was an associate geography professor at Vassar College.
To achieve journalistic balance, should pro/con columnists have similar expertise?
Quad City Times Editorial Page Editor Mark Ridolfi said: “I occasionally publish pro/con packages derived from our letters and syndicated columns. Very occasionally, I solicit pro/cons from local folks. But I’ve not encountered any reader concerns about matching the professions of the writers.”
Des Moines Register Opinions Editor Randy Evans said: “Some readers complain that opinions from a lobbyist are not valid. In the ideal world, I would prefer to pair up scientist vs. scientist or lobbyist vs. lobbyist, etc. But from a practical standpoint, organizations will turn to their CEO or lawyer or governmental affairs director to author an op-ed, rather than to one of the scientists.”
Gazette Opinion Page Editor Jeff Tecklenburg wrote that “the majority of the time, when it comes to local or state issues and seeking out people with related expertise or experience, the response is positive,” adding that it’s not always possible to closely match up backgrounds.
The Gazette uses the McClatchy-Tribune News Service for Pro/Con columns on national issues such as climate change. Op-Ed Editor Ray Walker stated: “Pro-Con writers are chosen based on their expertise, writing ability and ability to express an opposite point of view. One side can be written by a member of Congress, another by a professor, a think-tank fellow, a scientist, a lawyer. The important thing is that they make credible arguments for their point of view.”
My reaction: Science-based issues need views from credible scientists. Medical issues need views from credible medical professionals. Public policy issues need views from credible public policy experts and politicians.
THE BALANCE ISSUE
Does journalistic balance require equal time for all positions when a small minority view, say 10 percent, is held by the knowledge-based community?
On Jan. 6, CNN Reliable Sources host and media critic Howard Kurtz, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute discussed “false equivalence — one side says this, one side says that” using the example of “one person representing 99.5 percent of scientists on climate change and one person representing a half a percent with the other side.” Their explanation for this reinterpretation of balance is “that mainstream media and their advertisers are so concerned about an image of bias in the news that they present advocates from two different sides to eliminate the bias argument.”
Paul Chadwick, an attorney who wrote the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s standards states: “Impartiality follows the weight of evidence; fair treatment; and open-mindedness and does not require that every perspective receives equal time, nor that every facet of every argument is presented.”
During November and December, The Gazette Opinion (now labeled Insight) page contained a variety of columns on climate change including academics and a lawyer. Gazette columnist Dorman researched the background of the lawyer and asked: “Who do we believe, 138 scientific faculty and research staff from Iowa or a lawyer from Tampa?”
My reaction: Readers learn only if guest columnists use relevant facts supported by credible evidence. In our example, if almost all climate scientists agree on certain facts, then the relevant question becomes: What do we do about it?
How do readers determine the credibility of the guest columnist?
My response is to quote Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel, co-authors of The Elements of Journalism: “Journalism of opinion is not fundamentally about reporting the news, but about making sense of it.” We readers need transparency to trust those making sense of it.
l If you have an unresolved concern or question about Gazette or KCRG-TV9 news, opinion or online content, contact Judi Whetstine, SourceMedia Group’s community advocate, at email@example.com, or by mail to Community Advocate, The Gazette, 500 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401. Whetstine, not a SourceMedia Group employee, is a former assistant U.S. attorney in Cedar Rapids and current chair of the City of Cedar Rapids Ethics Board.