Determining Journalistic Fairness is Job of Citizens, Not Government

Originally posted: August 25, 2012

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to stop enforcing a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine. On the FCC’s books since 1949, the policy required broadcast media to provide balanced coverage of issues of public importance. The problem, of course, was that the policy put a government agency in the position of deciding whether independent news organizations were reporting fairly.

The Ronald Reagan FCC stopped enforcing “fairness” in 1987 on First Amendment grounds that the government should stay out of journalistic decision-making. Democratically controlled Congresses twice passed legislation to codify the Fairness Doctrine into law, but vetoes by Reagan and President George H. W. Bush kept the doctrine in its grave.

But it was only a year ago that the Fairness Doctrine was officially removed from the Code of Federal Regulations, even though the FCC had not enforced it for years. Current FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who had the rule officially removed, said in a statement that the Fairness Doctrine held “the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas.”

News consumers should know that they have to figure out journalistic fairness on their own. The government won’t, and shouldn’t, referee for them. Yet, news consumers have to wrestle with a reporting agenda they perceive as unfair. Rasmussen Reports surveys indicate that 59 percent of voters believe President Obama has received better media treatment than GOP challenger Mitt Romney; only 18 percent think Romney has received more favorable media treatment.

A Pew Research Center study released this month shows consumers continue to lose trust in the performance of news organizations. In the past 10 years, believability ratings have plummeted from 71 percent to 56 percent. The steepest declines have been in broadcast and cable television news, with the smallest declines among local newspapers and local television.

Journalistic fairness is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Watchdog groups such as Media Research Center and Accuracy in Media monitor news reports and point out examples of perceived liberal bias. Other watchdogs, including Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and Media Matters, critique the media from the standpoint that traditional outlets push right-leaning agendas.

A major challenge for news consumers is to separate reporting from commentary. In newspaper, the the opinion section is clearly labeled. But it’s harder for viewers watching network television news, where reporters seem to have trouble distinguishing between reporting information and editorializing. One recent example of blurring that line: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, reporting live on Paul Ryan’s selection as Romney’s running mate, proclaimed, “This is not a pick for suburban moms, this is not a pick for women.” No indication that this was commentary. No attribution or sense of how Mitchell reached that conclusion.

Advocacy journalism has a place and has served to create substantial public dialogue. Talk radio commentators, such as Ed Schultz on the left and Mark Levin on the right, are highly opinionated, but listeners are well aware these are not standard news programs. It’s the same with syndicated columnists in newspapers; readers know Charles Krauthammer is conservative and E.J. Dionne is liberal. We don’t expect them to be unbiased. News consumers should expect, however, that reporters report facts and leave the opinions for commentators.

The media industry should be troubled that polls show declining public confidence in its news products. Credibility can’t return until audiences are convinced that news organizations have the public’s interest in mind. Broadcast and print news executives need to assess their newsrooms systematically to see if a culture of reporting fairness prevails.

Citizens today can’t be casual news consumers if they want to be fully informed. If you get all your news from watching Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel, you are not fully informed. If you read only Newsweek magazine, you are not fully informed. It takes time and effort to scan many news sources and create the mosaic needed to get a wide and accurate news agenda. In a sense, news consumers need to create and execute their own Fairness Doctrine if they want to achieve balance in their news.

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