Following on from last week's posts, in which I looked at the reasons why the BBC might appear more biased in its coverage of the student protests than it actually was, and the contrasting coverage given to Alfie Meadows and Prince Charles, this is a look at the ideas of balance and equivalence; and why they're at the same time vitally important to, but can also be potentially deleterious towards, the integrity of news coverage.
Balance is a good thing. It means that you don't just have one opinion on a story, and you get to hear both sides of the argument. When you have a tense situation like a riot or a protest, you get to hear from both sides of the riot shields. That's perfect. Except, are the sources given equal equivalence? Or are some treated more seriously than others?
As a journalist you're trained to give more weight to 'official' sources than you are to just someone in a crowd. There are practical and sensible reasons for this. Official sources have job titles, are identifiable, are accountable for their actions and therefore can possibly be trusted a little more; in the case of a police officer, what they say to you can be quoted and repeated and you won't get in trouble, even if it's completely wrong or would be otherwise libellous. Also, an official source, for example a named police spokesman or high-ranking official, is someone you're going to want to speak to again; you need to have them on side. A single protester in the middle of a crowd isn't someone you're necessarily going to have to rely on in the future for quotes. This shouldn't have a bearing on how you treat them, of course, but you can see why it might be tempting to favour the source you're going to have to deal with again over the one you're only talking to once.
In the course of a fast-moving news story, for example a protest involving violence, official sources are more easily contactable than those in the midst of the melee. There will be a police spokesperson on the other end of a phone available to give opinions or quotes straight away based on the pictures, so that can be done immediately. It's not so simple to get hold of the other side, because the story is ongoing, and when it comes to something like a huge protest, there are reasons why people won't want to put themselves up as a spokesperson for a vast disparate group of individuals and their actions. News craves balance, but there are times when it isn't as easy to find.
In the initial stages, then, the news viewer is greeted with chaotic scenes and has to try and sense of them themselves. The first figures that journalists can quote come from official sources - you will see police injury numbers long before those of civilians; this isn't due to anything other than the police will report before the ambulance service will, but at the time, it skews things in favour of the police. Studio-bound journalists will find themselves attempting to narrate and make sense of pictures that show only certain events, often on a loop, and they will be desperately scratching around for something to fill the time and space - a handy quote from an official source will be just the thing to move the story along and bring something new.
Why not trust unofficial sources and eyewitnesses? Well, it can lead to serious problems. Remember just after Jean Charles de Menezes had been killed, many eyewitnesses thought they had seen him leap the barriers to the tube station, and this was reported faithfully by many news outlets at the time (and not denied by those who knew this was not the case, but in whose interest it was to ensure that the victim was smeared). But the victim had never leapt the barriers - the well-meaning eyewitness had seen one of the man's killers and had put two and two together. He had also seen a 'bulky jacket' which was used as an explanation as to why the victim may have been seen as being a suicide bomber. Again, this wasn't true. It wasn't deliberately false; it was an honest mistake. But when reported as such, it led to an entirely incorrect impression having been given to the public via their trusted news sources. This is just one instance where news outlets have been burned by relying on unofficial sources - when combined with the official sources who had made a horrific mistake and who were keen to deflect attention from their own errors, it led to a very one-sided picture of events for some time.
This can all create a picture in which things appear to be skewed towards the 'establishment' or the official lines - and whether it's intentional or not, that is how it can appear. It may not be collusion between broadcasters and the establishment, or anything like that; it may not be a case of taking sides - but if it appears that way, then you can see why people see it that way. You will hear from the Government and police long before you will hear from protesters in the kettle. You will hear Boris Johnson's sighs of despair or the Government's finger-pointing long before you hear from someone who's actually down there. Office-bound voices win. It's hard to find 'balance' at that stage, and some commenters on my previous post pointed out that the language used by presenters and journalists alike was phrased in terms of decrying the actions of protesters while defending the actions of police. Of course, it may be the case that protesters were simply more violent than police; but I don't know if the desk-bound journos were in a position to say that for sure.
But perhaps we all make judgements upon seeing footage, whether we want to or not. Perhaps the idea of balance can't always triumph when you have human beings involved. Human beings are emotional animals and react, at first, emotionally to events. The idea of the journalist as a camera seems a little outdated; the North American reporter ideal of the stark, detached figure simply relating the bare information, devoid of emotion, is something that I'm not sure can really be achieved. Perhaps it is an aspiration rather than a reality.
Then you have the idea of equivalence in terms of events. I compared the coverage of Alfie Meadows with that of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Some commenters said to me that both were examples of thuggery and were therefore equivalent events. I can't agree with that analysis. Someone ending up in hospital is, to me, a more serious outcome than someone being poked with a stick. While it's not a pleasant thing to go around scaring old ladies in cars - and it's not a hobby of mine - it is, I would argue, considerably less serious than whacking someone over the head with a stick. They are not equivalent events, since one has resulted in serious injury and the other has not. One is a more serious thing than the other.
Again, the idea of balance works against the non-official sources. Meadows said he had been hit over the head, but news reporters say it is only something alleged, since it has been alleged by someone who isn't an official source. Clarence House 'confirms' that the Duchess was made contact with by a protester, but that is a matter of alleging rather than fact - yet is presented differently. It isn't that news outlets are taking sides; it is just that they are more trusting of Clarence House than they are of a protester in the midst of a demonstration.
Balance is a fine thing, but the pursuit of balance can result in news ending up giving a skewed picture of events. When you have the vast majority of scientists claiming, for example, that man-made climate change is extremely likely, but a tiny minority claiming that it's not the case, you can end up with a 50-50 split in terms of debate. There is point and then there is counterpoint. As I've said before, this can end up being like the guy in Airplane who says "I say let em crash" being given equal equivalence to someone who doesn't want the plane to crash, if you're not careful. It's a fine thing to want a counterpoint, but only if it's a valid and representative counterpoint.
So where does that leave us? I think what I am trying to say that there isn't a big conspiracy in which the BBC and other news organisations are intrinsically biased against protesters and towards the police or the 'establishment' - at least I don't see any evidence of it. However, the picture that is presented, due to the time pressure and the weighting given to different kinds of sources, means that initially and often throughout the course of events, there can be a reliance on the safety of official sources rather than the equivalent voices from the other side of the riot shields.
There will be more protests to come, and it seems that TV news is not equipped to cover it effectively, given its reliance on official sources and unwillingness to trust the views of Joe Public. But things are changing rapidly. People are bringing their own cameras. People are recording what's going on. Imagine there was no footage of Jody McIntyre being dragged from his wheelchair; it would have been presented as "he said" vs "the official sources say" for some time. Now we are getting more power, because we have more information. The most powerful weapons at these protests are not sticks or concrete blocks, but cameras. The more cameras that attend, the less powerful the traditional news media. The more chance we have to know what's really going on.