Balance is one of the most contested concepts in the wider academic and public debates about the role of the media in society, but the concept is particularly relevant to public service broadcasters, with the UK’s BBC being an international exemplar, for whom balance often is a specific mandate. While the print media claim objectivity in their routines of news gathering, reporting and editing, they are not legally required to be balanced. The newspaper may express its institutional voice, its political worldview, in its comment and analysis pages, and it may offer space to alternative viewpoints in the interests of genuine pluralism or to broaden its readership. The public service broadcaster, however, has a legal obligation in many societies to be balanced and be seen to be balanced, and it is internally and externally regulated to that end. The requirement to represent or give public access to a range of opinions in public debate without favor applies especially to news and current affairs and must be demonstrable either within a program or across the range of such program within a certain time frame.
Problems With The Balance Norm
Regardless of regulation, however, normative, liberal assumptions of balance have long been open to challenge and dispute. The response of broadcasters has been to point to these very same disputes and claim that “bias is in the eye of the beholder” or that if they are offending all sides of political debate equally then they must be upholding their public service duty of impartiality. This rather relativist debate opens up every time public service broadcasters such as the BBC cover controversial issues in politics, and military or industrial conflict. Most major political parties in western, liberal democracies closely monitor broadcast coverage of politics for any evidence of explicit bias or imbalance in favor of rival parties. In the US, organizations such as the liberal Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and the conservative Accuracy in the Media (AIM) have long played a watchdog role in lobbying for “balanced” coverage of politics, but usually always from their own partisan perspective. Most recently, celebrity campaigners such as Michael Moore and Al Franken have stirred the debate about structural bias in the American media system, which is seen to favor right-wing politics and corporate power.
It is difficult in such debates to get a clear reality check on what is balanced or biased because every critic has a different idea of where the “center-ground” actually is, or of how the interests of all sections of the public should be represented. Furthermore, one could argue that with every charge of “liberal bias” comes a different understanding of what “liberal” means. Yet public service broadcasters themselves would refrain from absolutist definitions of balance and its application. For example, the BBC Guide of 1990 pointed out that impartiality “does not imply absolute neutrality, nor detachment from basic moral and constitutional beliefs. For example, the BBC does not feel obliged to be neutral as between truth and untruth, justice and injustice, compassion and cruelty, tolerance and intolerance” (cited in McNair 1994, 28). This article of faith has since been excised from editorial guidelines but its core value is still implicit in the BBC’s pronouncements on impartiality. Its conception of balance, as that of all public service broadcasters around the world, is not neutral but deeply ideological and system maintaining (see for example Glasgow University Media Group 1976). In Britain, all broadcasters, public or private, are regulated by the Office of Communications (OfCom). In the United States, the responsibility lies with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These state regulators exercise control over all aspects of broadcasting from licensing and the allocation of transmission frequencies to regulating content according to legal standards of taste, decency, and impartiality. However, the broadcasters also have their own internal, regulatory structures designed to ensure compliance with the provisions of state regulation. There is an argument that when it comes to the question of balance, external critics need to hold broadcasters accountable on the standards they set themselves, not on standards set by external political agendas.
As with all areas of programming, the BBC’s news and current affairs output is guided by the policies, principles, and commitments set out in the BBC Charter, effectively the BBC’s license to broadcast. However, the day-to-day editorial management of news is the responsibility of the News and Current Affairs Directorate and is regulated by published editorial guidelines, including those on impartiality and diversity of opinion, which, it claims, lie “at the heart of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences.” The guidelines set out the broadcaster’s commitment to “a properly balanced service consisting of a wide range of subject matter and views broadcast over an appropriate time scale across all our output” and to “take particular care when dealing with political or industrial controversy or major matters relating to current public policy.” They also remind us that “the BBC is forbidden from expressing an opinion on current affairs or matters of public policy other than broadcasting” (BBC Editorial Guidelines n.d.).
The American Public Broadcast Service (PBS) operates similar editorial policies with regard to balance, committing it to “present, over time, content that addresses a broad range of subjects from a variety of viewpoints.” As with the BBC, therefore, there is the question of reasonable extent. The phrase “over time” means that affiliate stations, or their editors and producers, are not obliged to balance every available viewpoint in a single item or program but “to consider not only the extent to which the content contributes to balance overall, but also the extent to which specific content is fairly presented in light of available evidence.” As a condition of broadcast, the PBS may require a producer to “further the goal of balance by deleting designated footage or by including other points of view on the issues presented or material from which the public might draw a conclusion different from that suggested by the content” (PBS Editorial Standards n.d.).
In the UK, section 5 of Ofcom’s Broadcast Code (2005) commits all broadcasters, public or private, “to treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality” (emphasis added). The key, qualifying word here is “due,” meaning that the application of impartiality should be “adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme,” not that “every argument and every facet of every argument has to be represented” (OfCom Broadcast Code n.d.).
In the US, the FCC has specific legal obligations to impartiality contained within the Public Broadcast Act 1967 (and subsequent amendments). Sub-part D, section 19, of the Act requires from all public broadcasting stations “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature” and that their commitment to objectivity and balance, including efforts to address public concerns about perceived failures in this commitment, should be made transparent to viewers.
The Academic Critique Of Balance
Public debates about balance in television news are usually founded on common sense or partisan perceptions rather than hard, empirical evidence. However, there is a considerable body of academic research that seeks to measure imbalance or bias using quantitative and qualitative analysis. One of the most comprehensive studies has been that by the Glasgow University Media Group. Their series of books, Bad news (1976), More bad news (1980), and Really bad news (1982), represents a sustained, longitudinal study of British television news in the latter half of the 1970s, particularly the role of industrial disputes in exacerbating Britain’s economic crisis during that period. The group found that news coverage amplified the role of strikes while playing down the problem of mismanagement and disinvestment in key industries, and that the news privileged definitions of the problem from management sources over those from the trade union movement.
In the US, studies of American prime-time news coverage of the Vietnam War took a similar analytical approach. Lawrence Lichty (1973) and Daniel Hallin (1986) provided quantitative evidence that television news coverage of the war did not focus on images of death and injury among American troops to the extent perceived in the wider public debate about the role of the media in losing the war. This correlates closely with a study of British broadcast coverage of the war in Iraq, in 2003, which concluded that the BBC was among the most pro-war of all the broadcasters in its framing, again quite contrary to popular assumptions at the time (Lewis and Brookes 2004). In more recent studies, academics have challenged standards of balance in American news coverage (in the press as well as broadcasting) of local and presidential election campaigns (Lake Dates & Gandy 1985; Busterna & Hansen 1990; D’Alessio & Allen 2000; Niven 2001; Carter et al. 2002).
Broadcasters cannot guarantee absolute impartiality in their news and current affairs output but it is nonetheless essential that they be accountable and transparent in their editorial policies and production methods, key requirements for a truly public broadcasting system. Sometimes, however, political pressure can breed inhibition and oversensitivity to external perceptions of the service. In June 2007, a BBC internal report attracted widespread media attention for its scathing critique of the Corporation’s tendency to “liberal group think” and its undue privileging of public campaigns such as Make Poverty History or Bob Geldof ’s Live 8 event in 2005. The title of the report, “From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel” (cited in Gibson 2007), referred to what the authors thought was a move away by the BBC from its commitment to balance and toward a tendency to build liberal consensus around such popular, public campaigns. One could argue that this misses the point, for it is not a case of moving from one position to the other. As a public broadcaster with a long history, the BBC has always sought to occupy the center ground, and its insistence on balance has been a means to that end. Yet the center ground is never fixed but shifts from era to era, a problem that applies to most public broadcasters around the world. The principle of balance, therefore, is not simply an editorial procedure or safeguard against undue bias but a key function of public broadcasting as an institutional ideology.
- BBC Editorial Guidelines (n.d.). At www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/edguide/impariality, accessed July 2007.
- Busterna, J. C., & Hansen, K. A. (1990). Presidential endorsement campaigns by chain-owned newspapers, 1986 – 94. Journalism Quarterly, 67(2), 286 –294.
- Carter, S., Fico, F., & McCabe, J. A. (2002). Partisan and structural balance in local television election coverage. Journalism and Media Communications Quarterly, 79(1), 41–53.
- D’Alessio, D., & Allen, M. (2000). Media bias in presidential elections: A meta-analysis. Journal of Communication, 50(4), 133 –156.
- Gibson, O. (2007). Internal report attacks BBC’s liberal consensus. Guardian, p. 5 (June 19).
- Glasgow University Media Group (1976). Bad news. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Glasgow University Media Group (1980). More bad news. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Glasgow University Media Group (1982). Really bad news. London: Writers and Readers.
- Hallin, D. (1986). The “uncensored war”: The media and Vietnam. London: University of California Press.
- Lake Dates, J., & Gandy, O. (1985). How ideological constraints affected coverage of the Jesse Jackson campaign. Gazette, 43, 159 –194.
- Lewis, J., & Brookes, R. (2004). How British television news represented the case for the war in Iraq. In S. Allan & B. Zelizer (eds.), Reporting war: Journalism in wartime. New York: Routledge, pp. 283 –300.
- Lichty, L. (1973). The war we watched on television. American Film Institute Report, 4(4).
- McNair, B. (1994). News and journalism in the UK: A textbook. London: Routledge.
- Niven, D. (2001). Bias in the news: Partisanship and negativity in media coverage of presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. Press/Politics, 6(3), 31– 46.
- OfCom Broadcast Code (n.d.). At www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/ifi/codes/bcode, accessed July 2007. PBS Editorial Standards (n.d.). At www.pbs.org/aboutpbs/aboutpbs_standards.html, accessed July 2007.