Impartiality and balance in the spotlight - again

Impartiality and balance in the spotlight - again

The Gaza conflict has brought concepts of impartiality and balance in news coverage into the spotlight again, with some of the ABC’s journalists raising questions about its coverage. ABC Friends looks at the recent discussion.

ABC Office in Shepparton
Photo: Rhizomatic (Open Source)

In early November, ABC Editorial Policy Manager, Mark Maley, convened an online and face-to-face meeting attended by more than 200 ABC journalists.

The purpose of the meeting, Maley said, was to provide an opportunity for journalists to raise issues and receive responses relating to the “editorial challenges” posed by the broadcaster’s Gaza coverage.

Journalists raised a range of issues, including the appropriateness of particular language and the need to ensure adequate historical context. One of the main criticisms raised was the ABC’s perceived overuse of information provided by the Israel Defence Forces and a failure by the broadcaster to ensure that claims made by both sides in the conflict were challenged equally. 

At the heart of the discussion were the issues of impartiality and balance – two terms often used interchangeably but which actually represent “different concepts”. 

In a 2018 report, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) described balance as being concerned with what is presented (for example, a range of views), while impartiality is concerned with how it is presented (for example, in a way that follows the weight of evidence).    

The report said that the ABC’s approach had shifted over time, “decreasing its emphasis on balance while maintaining its emphasis on impartiality”. 

As discussed in our item on the review of referendum coverage, editorial staff were “explicitly told that 50/50 balance of advocates was not required” in all coverage.

“The goal was to ensure that audiences on all platforms were presented with the main arguments for and against the propositions in the referendum on every platform within a reasonable time.”

Journalists oppose “both-sidesism”

The ABC staff meeting was closely followed by the release of a petition signed by more than 250 media representatives calling on news outlets to “adhere to truth over ‘both-sidesism’. Both-sidesism is not balanced or impartial reporting; it acts as a constraint on truth”. 

“It is our duty as journalists to hold the powerful to account, to deliver truth and full context to our audiences, and to do so courageously without fear of political intimidation,” the petition reads.

In response to the petition, Sydney Morning Herald and Age management banned journalists who signed from reporting on the conflict because of the potential audience perception that the journalists’ personal views would influence their reporting. The ABC cautioned its journalists that their impartiality could be questioned if they supported the action. 

Co-Director of the Centre for Media Transition and former, long-time ABC foreign correspondent, Monica Attard, said that some of the journalist signatories may not have been sufficiently aware that by signing they were moving closer to the realm of advocacy rather than impartiality. 

Attard said all journalists needed to be aware that “picking a side runs against the principle of impartiality and doesn’t always deliver the truth and context they want Australian audiences to be exposed to”. 

Journalists, she said, are entitled to their own views, but “not entitled to make them the basis of their reporting”.

Dennis Muller, Senior Research Fellow at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, describes impartiality as the

“bedrock of reliable information people need if they are to make up their own minds free of the manipulation that results when news reporting is tainted by partisanship”. 

Impartiality, he said, results from “courageous efforts to be accurate, fair, balanced, open-minded, and unconflicted by personal interest” and it requires verified information and serious allegations to be reported “regardless of any anticipated blow-back”. 

Anderson disagrees with ABC critics

ABC Managing Director, David Anderson, strongly presented his views in response to the issues raised by his staff and others during a recent radio interview and at the ABC Friends Annual Dinner (see our item here).

At the dinner, he said “to those who would accuse the ABC of failing in its duty to be impartial: I disagree”.

Anderson reiterated the ABC Board is required by law to ensure that the news and information is presented accurately, impartially and objectively, but that this did not always win favour.

“A commitment to impartiality is a tough discipline.  It means that the ABC can be in the position of putting views to the public that some, or many, may not want to hear”.

He said he had noticed this with the ABC’s coverage of both the Israel-Hamas war and the Voice to Parliament referendum.

“Often when people say our editorial policies are in decline, they usually mean we aren’t taking a side. In fact this means our editorial policies are working exactly as they should,” he said.

During the radio interview, Anderson referred to the concerns raised during the news staff meeting about the ABC’s unwillingness to use terms such as “invasion”, “occupation” and “genocide”, in relation to Israeli government policy and allegations made by human rights groups.

Anderson said that the ABC would only include such terms when reporting statements made by others.

“Genocide is a claim that’s being made. It’s a serious crime. It’s an allegation of a crime. The IDF and Israel reject that. Same with apartheid. We’ll report other people’s use of that. We won’t use it ourselves,” he told ABC Melbourne.

Dennis Muller said that without independent evidence, the ABC was correct not to adopt such terms  itself “but equally it is right to report others making such allegations”. 

“These highly contested and emotive terms are often used for their rhetorical power, which is the province of partisans but not of journalists seeking to be impartial.”

Monica Attard said the ABC not making such claims was an “important element in how public interest journalism is done”.

Sophie Arnold
E-news Editor