Balance in News reporting— is that an ultimate objective?

It is an old dictum in journalism that you should strive for balance in your reports. This was often interpreted to mean that the journalists should give both sides of the story he or she reported. The author remembers him being silenced at an editorial conference by the News Editor in the eighties when he tried to suggest that there could be more than two sides to a story and doing a balancing act between two sides was not sufficient. It was sometimes an inviolable principle.

            riotsWell, the two-sides theory has its advantages. When resources are limited, it helps to bring out a reasonably good report. Both the sides will be generally satisfied though the wrong side would be happier. For the newspaper, it often helps to avoid criticism from interested sections of people as the Editor can say that we have given both sides of the story.

However, in practice the reporting will hardly ever be balanced. The reporter may give more importance to the version he things is closer to the truth. He may also add his bias. If he achieves perfect balance, the reader will be confused as to what is the truth. The confusion will be compounded when it comes to incidents such as communal riots.

Experienced reporters know that you will hear several versions of even a simple accident if you ask around. The problem becomes more compounded if the issue is complex. So, the best option is to seek information from as many sources as possible if time and resources permit. This may get you closer to truth so that you can confidently ignore the other side.

However, times have changed with our having television channels that do propaganda now. What will the others, if any, do?  We have seen old timer Rajdeep Sardesai attracting criticism when he focussed on both sides of the story in reporting Delhi riots (a better term may be targeted violence). Well, the options are limited especially when you are doing live reporting. You cannot really balance a story because all facts about riots cannot be known. Besides, all obtainable facts will not become available at the same time. So, if you are on the side of truth, what you can do is to counter propaganda. Alt News has done this in Delhi, often making use of technical tools.

In a communal riot, you cannot please any side as truth will hurt both sides. So several channels think that it is better to have one on their side and do biased coverage. That helps to keep their captive audience who hardly ever sees the other side. (Algorithms of social media sites also do the same thing. But the difference is that they maintain diverse captive audiences, catering different content to different audiences in tune with users’ tastes, interests and beliefs.) Needless to say this is dangerous for the country and its people. Truth needs to be told even when the rulers lie and refuse to acknowledge facts. Let the lies be reported, and the viewers told the truth; thus catering to both sides. But truth needs no balancing act. Truth-telling is the soul of journalism.

Roy Mathew
March 3, 2020