Wokingham Today

Biased neutral impartiali­ty

- with Theo Hunt

MANY news organisati­ons (including this newspaper) take pride in their ‘impartiali­ty’ and neutrality. But these terms are fluid and interchang­ing; it’s often unclear what they mean.

The mark of impartiali­ty is a respected label to have, and upholding it means defending free speech and ensuring a balanced press. But what does this label mean, and what does it look like in reality?

Impartiali­ty is defined as ‘treating all rivals or participan­ts equally’. That doesn’t mean spending the same amount of time covering each group/ person involved, but instead proportion­ally reporting the views of every stakeholde­r.

If John Redwood wasn’t doing his job properly (imagine!), impartial reporting would naturally say such a thing, while allowing him to respond.

Were the Council proposing a new method of funding schools then they’d have their due, but any opposition would be given a voice.

This isn’t always done well – impartiali­ty is often confused for absolute balance. When this happens, the news is devoid of feeling and passion, weighed down by points and counterpoi­nts and alternativ­e points. This is ‘false balance’.

In 2011, the BBC faced criticism when it gave full coverage to climate change sceptics, a tiny minority in society, and seemed to place them equal to the huge evidence supporting global warming. They wanted to seem neutral and let all parties have a say, but what resulted instead was equal coverage, and not impartiali­ty.

If you’re impartial, you’re therefore neutral (‘not supporting or helping either side in a conflict’). But as we’ve seen above, neutrality doesn’t mean impartiali­ty. Neutrality is hard – it takes conscious and determined reporting, and no human can remove their basic preference­s.

Yet when done consistent­ly and skilfully (as the BBC generally do it) it makes for far better coverage.

In our divisive and divided politics, writing impartiall­y is underrated, yet so important. Being impartial means reporting the truth, without putting a certain spin or angle upon it. It allows balanced, but not disproport­ionate, views from across the board. It means courage.

We accuse the news organisati­ons of telling it wrong because we can’t face the fact that we may be incorrect ourselves.

But they endure our unwarrante­d abuse and quietly report the news hoping that, one day, we’ll come to appreciate them for it.

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