Instead of Balance, Let’s Have Fairness and Accuracy

With legs in airI’ve been thinking about this lately, this balance thing. That’s what journalism attempts to achieve, right? Drop your bias into the nearest toilet and shed any partisan attitudes that you might have. What me? I have no bias at all.

OK, that’s just crap, and I know it. Some even think that maybe this is not only impossible, but maybe not the best way to go. For myself, I write a blog, and if you read my about section, I make no claims to create balance. I am biased as all heck. But here’s the thing. I do always search for truth. I will cite my sources if needed or put link backs into my posts. That way, if you think that I am out in left field (which you know I am) you can always decide for yourself.

But what I wonder, when a journalist reports a story, either just regurgitating something from a news wire or an investigative piece of reporting, are they obligated to show both sides? Maybe not.

Let me give you an example. In his book Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism, historian and journalist David Mindich names the principle elements of objectivity: detachment, non-partisanship, the inverted pyramid, fact and balance. Mindich uses the newspaper coverage of the 1890 lynching mobs, most notably in the New York Times attempting to achieve objectivity, by showing both sides of the story, including “recounting the alleged transgressions of the victims that provoked the lynch mobs to fury” in an attempt to provide objective and un-biased reporting.[1]

In his blog, Dangers of “Balanced” Journalism, Chuck Thompson writes: “Its premise is that good reporting requires that if a point of view is presented in a news story, it must be balanced by an opposing point of view, even if there is no scientific or rational validity to that point.”

OK, so I come back to my original idea about the purpose of balance.

A study this week was released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, an arms-length government organization which has a “mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools.” Alex Maas of the Missing Children Project confirmed the deaths of 3000 children, documented from 1870 and beyond, some of the children buried in unmarked graves. Many of the children died while in the schools from disease, most notably tuberculosis. While these figures are confirmed, many scholars believe these numbers to be low, that as many as 35 – 60% of children died while in residential schools[2], I am told by Bill Wrigley, an expert in Aboriginal studies and Archeology.

So where is the balance? While this study was reported, many posters asked to see the figures of non-aboriginal child deaths from TB. Why aren’t the reporters at the CBC and CTV giving us all of the information? OK, they could have done that, but there is no such study conducted. Even for this intrepid lover of all things historical, I could barely dredge up some facts about TB deaths in Canada. But what I have found is this, the census reports for TB across the country for all men, women and children in Canada:

1880 200 deaths/100,000
1900 180 deaths/100,000
1908 165 deaths/100,000

A death rate of 12% was reported in 1901 for all persons in Canada. This is well below the death rate of children in residential schools. Why, you may ask? Two reasons. Living conditions in the schools were deplorable, with many of the healthy children exposed to the sick children, while in the Canada’s general population, isolation was the first assault on the disease before a vaccine was created. And secondly, the children had a lack of ancestral exposure to the illness, where First Nations on the east coast were only exposed to TB in the last 300 years, while TB has been in existence for 9000 years. TB stats in Canada are some of the lowest in the world, but Health Canada reports “while a significant reduction in Aboriginal TB rates has been seen over the past 30 years, the rates remain much higher than those of the non-Aboriginal Canadian-born populations.”

What my conclusions are, is that balance is there to make you feel better, offer you some comfort. I’d rather accuracy than balance, thank you very much.

[2] History of First Nations in Ontario – Part 3 (coming soon)

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