From work-life balance to the food we eat, balance is something we often struggle to find in a lot of areas of life.
As journalists, we strive for balance in our work — both in individual stories and in coverage of an issue over time. Whether in the sources we use or the angles we take, we know that news consumers value fairness.
Twenty eight of our partner newsrooms conducted interviews with their own news consumers in 2017, and when asked “what separates good journalism from bad,” many of the answers touched on a commitment to sharing diverse perspectives. Some highlights from the answers:
“Quality journalism is reporting facts and getting people’s voices and opinions from all sides.”
Bad journalism happens when a reporter “gets the data to lean the way they want it to lean.”
“I just want the facts from both sides so I can make my own decision. I do want context. … Bad journalism is willfully, maliciously biased. They pick and choose what they report because it is part of a greater plan to sway public opinion.”
“Journalists are trained in journalism schools to slant the news.”
People say they want balance. And most journalists would contend they do as well. So, what is a balanced approach?
Too often, the idea of balance is interpreted as giving different sides equal time, which can lead to a false equivalency. Sometimes balance means pointing out multiple viewpoints (we know there are seldom just two sides), the complexity of an issue, etc. Equal amount of air time or number of words isn’t always the goal.
With the Trusting News project, we have several newsrooms trying to earn users’ trust by demonstrating their commitment to balanced coverage. Within specific stories, they’re pointing out efforts to showcase the diversity of perspectives represented. They’re also showing balance over time, by looking for opportunities to highlight the breadth of their coverage. A few ways they’re doing it are by using editor’s notes, visual tools (gray boxes) to highlight and link to previous coverage of an issue, pro and con boxes and reorganizing front page layouts. (Yes, a newsroom actually did this, and it was awesome.)
With Trusting News strategies, we’re focused on ideas that are easy to implement. It doesn’t get much easier than putting a note in italics at the top of a text story.
WITF, a public radio station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, added the following language to the top of an online story about Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s campaign pledge to join a regional climate initiative:
“Here are the most prominent perspectives on this story. We are on the lookout for stereotypes and assumptions in our own work, and we invite you to point out we may have missed. Contact us on our Trusting News page.”
The note is short and sweet but alerts the user that the story they are about to read is complex and one people have strong feelings about. By saying “most prominent” they are not saying “only.” In addition to alerting the user to the complexity of the story, they have added an element of humility by saying they are aware they could have bias and are inviting feedback.
Adding editor’s notes like this can be particularly helpful when the story is about politics and other hot-button issues. Here WITF uses the same editor’s note on a story about the local opioid emergency that prompted a 2nd Amendment debate.
In a story about paid sick leave, Community Impact Newspaper group also used an editor’s note to demonstrate balance, but they take a little bit different of an approach. Their note reads:
“Editor’s note: Community Impact Newspaper has been following the paid sick leave issue since the city began gathering input for a potential citywide ordinance. Throughout Community Impact Newspaper‘s reporting, viewpoints from all sides of the issue have been expressed. Please click this link to find all previous coverage on this issue.”
While both notes address that the news organizations are including differing viewpoints and ask for feedback, WITF’s says they are always looking to eliminate their own stereotypes, while Community Impact highlights their lengthy coverage of the topic, which speaks to their knowledge of the subject matter and dedication to covering the topic and its complexities.
The Jefferson City News Tribune has used a similar approach to highlight the breadth and complexity of their coverage of diversity. An example:
The Jefferson City community has been facing the complex topics of diversity and racism for several months, and we’ve been reporting on those discussions as they happen. Today’s story focuses on the efforts of local faith leaders to identify goals and action steps to heal racial issues they see in the community. We’ve also heard from city leaders, school district officials, teachers, concerned parents and Jefferson City Public Schools alumni. For a look at all of the voices who have contributed to this discussion, view additional coverage at newstribune.com/diversity.
Highlighting previous coverage
Another newsroom, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, also highlighted their previous coverage to demonstrate balance. In this story about a school district’s facilities plan, the newspaper used a pull-out box to bring attention to the fact that the topic is complicated and link to where a user can find previous coverage.
This box links to more stories, which demonstrates the different angles they have covered, the different people they have spoken to and the different opinions that are out there. While highlighting the stories, they also labeled what type of story it was, helping a user better identify if it is opinion or news content right from the start.
In addition, they asked for feedback. If you do not ask, you may never get it.
Pros and cons
WCPO shows another way to use a pull-out box to demonstrate balance. In a story about a possible special tax, the news team highlighted the pros and cons of the issue in an inline box.
If I am a user and am reading this story, the box jumps out to me. I immediately can recognize that this story has multiple perspectives and sides and can quickly gain a grasp of what those are.
The Jefferson City News Tribune really took it to the next level to demonstrate balance while covering the anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, which was marked with protests and support.
Here is what their front page looked like on Jan. 21, a day protestors and supporters alike took the streets to express themselves. They emphasized the intent behind the approach when sharing the front page on Facebook.
Visually, it looks balanced. As mentioned earlier, the number of words on a page or space given to a story is not always an appropriate way to demonstrate balance, but it can sometimes do the trick. Now, if the design is split but the content doesn’t actually reflect both perspectives well, your user is going to know. But this type of deliberate placement of two stories that people are really fired up about does send a message. It says we are trying to be equal and take our role as journalists to provide all perspectives seriously.
In addition to the deliberate front page layout, the news team added an editor’s note to the top of both stories online.
Our partner newsrooms have lots of experimentation still ahead of them. But we’re finding that being direct with users about our intent and approach is often noticed and appreciated. And admitting we do not always have the answers but are working to find them can go a long way in their eyes.
Will you join us as we demonstrate balance? Let us know what you have been doing to let your users know you are covering all perspectives.
The Trusting News project, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund.