You may well have heard the terms balance and bias used to describe the coverage of news in the media. A famous recent case concerned the BBC coverage of the Iraq war, that the government claimed was biased against them.
But what does bias in reporting a story actually mean?
In order to achieve balance, it is usual for news programmes to invite a spokesperson from each side of an argument or issue to contribute to an interview, and the interviewer is supposed to challenge them equally, and give then each time to respond. There may be two or three people if it is a short news item, or many more if a whole programme is devoted to an issue. This seems fair. The audience gets to hear all sides of the issue and make up their own mind. But is this always balanced?
For example, imagine if the BBC decided to run a news item on whether or not the earth was round, and each day for a week they interviewed a scientist who believed this to be true, and a member of the flat earth society, who did not. This would be balanced, but would it be fair, or biased? Is the argument that the earth is flat strong or important enough to merit as much airtime as the argument that the earth is round? If you were planning to cover a story like this – where the weight of evidence was clearly very different on each side - how would you go about planning the programme?
The example of the flat versus the round earth may seem easy, but the issue of balance can be very difficult, especially where very strong beliefs are involved, and the stakes are very high. A real case relates to the very prolonged debate around the safety of the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. What can you find out about this debate? Why is it so controversial? Why is it so important to everyone, not just the parents or carers making a choice for their child?
Bias and culture