News Theory Questions 1

1) Should reporters tell interviewees all the ways the interview may be used? 

In journalism, some of the biggest and most influential stories have only been possible through the use of deception and mistrust. Deceit is a huge tool of uncovering wrong-doings in the public interest, exemplified recently by Sam Alladyce, who lost the England managerial position due to the work of undercover Telegraph reporters. This is why deception in journalism is a very difficult topic; it is powerful but is thought by many to be wrong.

The majority of interviews are conducted free of charge, therefore the journalist should be grateful for the interviewees time and offer them trust and respect in return. If the interviewee wants to know how the interview will be used, it is well within their right to do so, and the journalist should respond honestly. A journalist should only ever consider being deceptive when it is unquestionably in the public interest to do so. This is the opinion of Frost (2010), who says: “We need to remember that our contact with interviewees does mean that we have a duty to treat them fairly. Journalists should not normally use subterfuge or deception unless these are the only ways of getting a story that is in the public interest.”

If you report accurately and fairly, it can also benefit you in the future. Once an interviewee trusts you, they are more likely to give you further interviews in the future, potentially with better stories and quotes. Adams (2001) holds this opinion, saying journalists should “report accurately, don’t betray confidences, and trust should begin to develop. If your reports are accurate, they will remember and should be happy to talk to you again.”

In conclusion, honesty and integrity should be the backbone of every journalist and reporters should tell the interviewee how the interview will be used if they ask. However, the reporter should put the public first when conducting an interview and if something in the public interest is uncovered in an interview, and the only way for it to be revealed is by the use of deception, then it may be warranted to keep the uses of the interview from the interviewee.

Frost, C., 2010. Reporting for journalists [online]. Second edition. Oxon: Routledge.

Adams, S. and Hicks, W., 2001. Interviewing for journalists [online]. New York: Routledge.

2) How should we handle the biases of sources and avoid skewing the range of viewpoints?

It is a journalists job to ensure that the articles they write are accurate, clear and balanced and do not contain misleading information. To do this, reporters must ensure that the sources they use are selected wisely and speak truthfully when quoted in an article.

Becker’s hierarchy of credibility infers that the voice of ‘superordinates’ should take preference to the voice of ‘subordinates’, saying “credibility and the right to be heard are differentially distributed through the ranks of the system” (Becker 1967). Because news outlets abide by this system, particularly during election campaigns, it can become dangerous. For example during the EU referendum, quotes from the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign were frequently used by news outlets, despite the fact that the reporters knew they were not true. This was justified by labelling it as comment/opinion, rather than fact. In articles such as this, in order to balance the used of a biased source, an alternative opinion is used to counter the previous comment. The issue with many articles like this, particularly BBC examples due to their need to remain impartial, is that the news stories end up having no substance. If one person says one thing and another says different, who is the reader supposed to believe? It’s a difficult dilemma for news journalists, who’s job is to correctly inform the public and not feed them false information. However, whilst stating that articles cannot be inaccurate, the IPSO code does allow the Press to include quotes, stating that the media “must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”. Whilst there are flaws to using two opposite viewpoints in a story, it is arguably the best way to address the biases of sources, as it aids the impartiality of an article – providing each source carries a similar weight in society, according to Becker’s hierarchy of credibility (Becker 1967).

However, it is argued that journalists are smart enough to see through sources who offer them false information. Carlson writes that “journalists are not blind to the motivations of their sources. Reporters harbor varying levels of trust in what their sources tell them…” (Carlson 2011), which suggests that reporters wouldn’t include information that they don’t believe to be true, as it could distort readers.

In conclusion, all statements in articles, regardless of who the source is, should be fact. This prevents the reader from being misled by potentially false information. If everything within an article is fact, it makes the prevention of bias much easier. However, it is also vital that one source is countered/balanced with another, in order to prevent skewing the range of viewpoints.

Becker, H.S., 1967. Whose Side Are We On? [online]. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Carlson, M. and Franklin, B., 2011. Journalism, Sources and Credibility [online]. Oxon: Routledge.

3) What do fairness and balance mean in the journalistic context?

Fairness and balance have a similar meaning, but differ in certain aspects.

Balance can be a very difficult thing for journalists to apply. It is often confused with impartiality, but the two are different things. The simplified definition of balance is allowing two competing arguments the same amount of coverage, in order to remain impartial. As stated by broadcaster Mills:”balance allows us to put opinionated commentators on air, so long as we balance out their view with the opposing lines of thought” (Mills 2004); the same thing also applies to the press. Balance is a difficult thing for journalists to apply for two reasons. The first difficultly for journalists is remaining objective when having a strong personal belief, idea or knowledge about a subject. It is important for journalists to put their personal beliefs behind them and ensure they document two arguments equally when being balanced. This allows the audience to consider both sides to a story and make up their own conclusion. The second difficulty when balancing stories is when there is clear evidence, for example from well respected scientists or researchers, that one side of the argument is correct and another is false. This is best exemplified through the global warming debate. Almost every scientist in the world believes that global warming is a real problem, but the occasional politician (Donald Trump, for example) disagrees. Despite categorical evidence that one side of the argument is  correct and another is not, do you still make the story balanced by giving each side equal exposure? This is called false-balance, and can easily mislead the audience on a topic.

Fairness is slightly different to balance in the sense that it doesn’t mean giving two sides of an argument equal exposure. As defined by Gratton, fairness “does not mean equal column inches, or failure to make judgements about parties, policies and personalities. It does mean presenting the debate in a balanced way. It means a reasonable but not necessarily total distinction between  reporting and comment” (Gratton 1998 cited by Richards 2005). This essentially means that a story should be thoroughly researched and then findings should be reported fairly. If one side of a story is categorically correct and another is not, then it is fair to report that. As long as the reporter does thorough research on a topic and can justify making the editorial decision of saying one thing is right and another is wrong, then that is fair.

Mills, J., 2004. The Broadcast Voice [online]. Oxford: Focal Press.

Richards, I., 2005. Quagmires and Quandaries: Exploring Journalism Ethics [online]. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd.

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