False balance may silence coverage of moderate views: study
Upholding fairness and balance as journalistic standards may actually be marginalizing moderate voices within the public debate, a study to be published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly suggests.
The study, authored by Michael McCluskey of Ohio State University and Young Mie Kim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that moderate political groups were not as well covered in newspaper articles as more extreme right- and left-wing groups. Though numerous politicians, pundits and other public figures have already argued that the media favors polarized views, there has been little academic research on the issue.
“Moderatism as an enduring news value has received little systematic analysis in the past three decades, with previous evidence for moderatism drawn from a study of one newspaper, and from one television program, and support for polarization from network television,” the researchers explained.
McCluskey and Kim found that not only were groups that described themselves as very liberal or very conservative more likely to be mentioned in the 118 newspapers they examined, they were also more likely to be mentioned sooner in an article than more moderate groups.
More extreme groups may have greater prominence in newspapers simply because readers find them more interesting than moderate groups. “[E]xtremes are more intuitively novel, entertaining, and colorful,” the researchers noted in their study.
But the prominence of more extreme groups in the media could also be the result of journalists seeking to uphold objectivity and fairness in their reporting. Journalists may be attempting to maintain balance in their reporting by incorporating the views of two or more polarized groups, thus telling both sides of the story. The more nuanced and less sectarian views of moderate groups, on the other hand, bring an element of ambiguity to the story, potentially making it harder to explain.
“Selecting two opposing views — say very conservative and very liberal — thus becomes a shortcut for a range of views,” McCluskey and Kim explained. “In this way, journalists appear to have a ‘third-person’ view maintaining objectivity as a professional value. Moderate views, on the other hand, simply are less easy to define as representing a viewpoint than polarized left–right opinions. The large number of articles analyzed points toward an overall trend of balance among ideological extremes.”
[Two sides of argument via Shutterstock]