At work we’ve been dealing with two issues recently that are fairly contentious, and fairly polarizing between those for and against. The other day someone mentioned to us that our coverage of one of these issues had been unfairly biased — and I’m sure if that person had been paying attention to the other issue, the same conclusion would have been reached. Because it’s true, in both cases. While none of our actual reporting has objectively said this side is right and that side is wrong, and we’ve been careful to acknowledge the presence of opposing views, we’ve given one side — the side we agree with — a far easier time of it.
We’re journalists, and as such we tend to try, at least, to be objective. I know that on both issues we actively sought out the opposing viewpoint but in the case of the second, I’ll admit that our own biases about the kind of argument we would accept limited the pool of those we sought it from.
I was trying to figure out why we were so reluctant to go wider for a viewpoint — and understand this was nothing we ever discussed, the agreement was tacit — and eventually decided it was because in this issue, while the pro side has many nuanced arguments, the con side has just one: it’s wrong. They then take that argument to ridiculous lengths, detailing such improbable slippery slopes that they lose whatever righteousness the argument might have once held. There is black, there is white, and there is nothing in between. And they’d likely say that the nuanced arguments of their opponents, with their endless teasing out of moral and ethical threads, and finding of cases where there is room for equivocation, is the devil’s work.
But my thesis, it has just now hit me (I am quite self-aware, but sometimes it’s a lengthy process) is disproved by the other subject where we’ve been accused of bias. Because in that’s case, I’m on the side saying flatly “it’s wrong” while the other side is offering up slightly more nuanced arguments — their argument in this case is that it’s not illegal to do what they’re doing, that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees them certain rights, even if that selfsame Charter guarantees the people they’re doing it to the right to be protected from having it done to them. But in this case, I’m on the side offering up the slippery slope arguments — and they don’t feel improbable to me, in part because all the examples on that slope have also been legal at some point in our past. But see? I’m rationalizing my slippery slope while negating the possibility that the same can be done with theirs.
Back when I was in journalism school I interviewed a CBC journalist who was working in the then-Soviet Union. Journalism school pounds the need to be objective into our heads from the first day, so I was gob-smacked when he told me that objectivity was a) impossible and b) unproductive. Some things are just wrong, objectively and subjectively he said, and you do society no favours by trying to present a balanced view of an objectively bad thing. I didn’t really agree with him then, but had no experience to back up my supposition, so didn’t argue the point. The older I get and the firmer my opinions become, the more I see the strength in his argument — when such unobjective reportage accords with my own opinion. To be fair, he was talking about cases where a government is, say, gassing its citizens — there are acts which the majority of society can agree are objectively bad and it is not harmful to report them as such (and while you still need to try to get the government’s side of the story, you are not obliged to give it credence). Still, his argument also makes a place for the journalism with which I do not agree, and that is more problematic.
I guess this is how we end up shouting at each other, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and media that tries for balance gets accused of bias because it isn’t giving your argument better play than their argument. I find it difficult to read articles written by stakeholders holding the opposing views in either of the issues above, I don’t find partisans who see things in black and white interesting. And yet it turns out I am one. Go figure.