Being fair means examining facts or events without allowing feelings or opinions to interfere.
Total objectivity may be impossible, but responsible reporters must do their best to avoid letting personal beliefs and biases creep into news stories. Good reporters will battle the urge to slant or misrepresent information and will strive to be fair by presenting all sides of an issue. A balanced presentation allows audience members to evaluate the situation for themselves.
Although total objectivity may be impossible, reporters must strive to present factual stories that are free of their own opinion. We all have opinions and will inevitably be forming opinions as we come in contact with news stories. In fact, even the decision to cover a story was based on someone's opinion. Fairness does not mean that opinion is totally excluded from mainstream news. However, when the opinions of reporters and editors are included, such as in the opinion and editorial pages of newspapers, they must be clearly labeled as such. Broadcast professionals,likewise, should clearly identify those stories that include editorial opinion. News stories are different. They will certainly include other people's opinions but should not include the reporter's opinion.
Reporters must constantly remind themselves to look at news with fairness. There is always more than one side to a story,and the reporter must find it in order to present a true picture. In addition to presenting various perspectives on a story, the reporter must be sure that every single word is precisely accurate.
Objective does not mean positive, and it does not mean negative. Being objective requires finding the facts and presenting different viewpoints fairly. Fairness, in turn, means presenting both sides—or many sides—of a story. Suppose a reporter is asked to look into accusations by a group of parents that a particular high school principal is so ineffective that students are not getting a proper education. The reporter may first find out who is making the accusations and determine the basis of the claims. Following some initial findings that the accusations appear to have some credibility, the reporter will begin investigating the story. Who else would know about the principal's performance? Students and teachers; school workers, such as the secretaries, janitors and cafeteria workers; guidance counselors; parents and PTA officers; and others could become sources of information. The reporter should contact the principal's supervisors at the school board. Are there any written records about the principal's job performance? Has the issue been discussed at any public meeting from which minutes are available? The principal is certainly the central figure in the story. What does the principal say? The reporter should give the principal a chance to respond to the charges and should remain open to that side of the story. While gathering all the facts, the reporter may see many reports of the principal's incompetence. By this time, although the reporter may have developed an opinion about the principal's effectiveness, he must strive to maintain as much objectivity as possible. When the story reveals a large body of negative information, it does not necessarily mean the reporter was biased. The reporter may well have gathered the facts fairly.
When a reporter presents only one side of the story, the information may be factual but unfair. For example, it may be factual that a citizen is accusing a public official of misusing public funds; however, anyone can make an accusation. Where's the evidence? Where's the proof? A good reporter, even if she is suspicious of the accused, should not be satisfied with presenting one side of the story. A good reporter will verify the charges and make certain the official gets a chance to respond to them.
Reporters must be very careful to ask the right questions in the right way. The reporter can phrase questions so they lead people to answer in a certain way, but her goal should be to find out what people really think. In the example of the school principal,suppose that a student reported finding the principal watching television in the office during the school day. When the reporter interviews a parent, the question could be phrased as follows: Students have reported that the principal watches television during the school day. What do you think of such behavior? Obviously, a parent would find such behavior unacceptable and might provide dramatic language about how disgusted he is. The question leads the parent to make negative comments about the principal, even though the parent may not have known of such an incident. Since the reporter is trying to find out about the principal's job performance, a better question would leave the parent to respond either positively or negatively: What do you think of the principal's effectiveness?
Accuracy is the degree to which information is precise, exact and free from mistakes, and it is the only thing news departments have to offer. Accurate information is the newsroom's product. If reporters get it wrong, they lose credibility—and they lose the audience. Unfortunately, too many reporters make too many mistakes, which harms the credibility of the news media in general. In a Washington Post story, one reporter committed a violation of accuracy standards in a story about Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia. The article addressed the senator's efforts to get funding for renovating a train depot in his home state.
The article noted that Senator Byrd "glides past on Amtrak's Cardinal Limited from time to time, heading to and from his home in Sophia, a few miles south."In fact, Senator Byrd did not regularly ride the train past the depot in question and had not ridden that particular train within the past 10 years. Moreover, he had never ridden the train to Sophia because it did not go there (Brill, 1998). What would possess a reporter to write down information without knowing whether or not it was true? Was it pride in clever writing? An assumption that the senator regularly rode that train? A desire to portray the senator in a particular way? If the details are wrong, how can the public believe the rest of the story?
A good reporter must be confident that each and every word of the story is correct. Can you prove the information? The newswriter should pay attention to every minor, nagging question about a story. Read your story to someone else and see if he has questions you have not thought of or have not answered. If there is any question, any doubt or any uneasiness about what you're writing, check it out before the story is printed or broadcast. Reporters are often hesitant to bother someone after they have taken that person's time for an interview, but news sources will have much more respect for the reporter who interrupts dinner to clarify a point than for the reporter who gets the information wrong. Be sure that everything in your story is exactly right.
Accuracy in Sound Bites
In broadcast news, the reporter usually prepares a news package that includes narration plus recorded comments from one or more people she interviewed for the story. A source's comments that are edited into the story are called sound bites. Good reporters make sure that the part of the interview selected for the news story presents an accurate picture of the person's comments. Obviously, a story will sparkle when it includes a dramatic, emotional comment, but good intentions should not lead the reporter astray.
Suppose a city council member has spent most of an interview talking about the benefits of a planned shopping center, such as jobs, tax revenue, improved merchandise selections for buyers and a shiny new look for a declining business area. The official also explains that property values will go up for those who live nearby. When asked about traffic flow, the official explains that roads will be upgraded to handle increased traffic and then comments in an offhanded way, "During road construction, everything will be a mess for the neighbors. I'm glad I don't live there." This sentence would make a lively addition to the story, but does it really reflect the attitude of the council member? If the reporter uses this sentence, can it be put in the proper perspective, as an offhand comment within a long conversation about the benefits of the construction? Reporters can easily misrepresent or slant stories by the choice of sound bites, but they must avoid doing so.