Impartiality in journalism

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Kenneth Allen</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
Image by Kenneth Allen released via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Being impartial means not being prejudiced against any particular person, group, or point of view. All journalists have their own views, and yet, to deliver comprehensive and authoritative coverage of news and current affairs, they must rise above their own personal perspectives. Only by reflecting the diversity of opinion fairly and accurately can we hope to offer a true picture of what is really happening.

Impartiality in news

News is about delivering facts that have been tested, sourced, attributed and proven. Impartiality is essential for robust news coverage. It’s not about being soft and bland. It’s about stripping out the personal, and allowing the audience the dignity of drawing their own conclusions free from any thought pollution injected by the journalist. It means that we must strive to:

  • reflect a wide range of opinions
  • explore conflicting views
  • ensure that no relevant perspective is ignored
  • avoid any personal preferences over subject matter or choice of interviewees
  • be honest and open about any personal interests/history.

Editorial freedom

In terms of editorial freedom, journalists should be free to:

  • cover any subject if there are good editorial reasons for doing so
  • report on a specific aspect of an issue
  • provide an opportunity for a single view to be expressed
  • cover stories that might offend part of the audience.

When we invite people such as academics, industry experts and social support workers to comment on issues, we need to take into account that they may have their own agendas for cooperating with us. They will probably not be offering an impartial perspective. They are the voices who can help us include multiple perspectives.

The choice of who we invite to contribute to our journalism is important. Here we must be fair. Ideally, we should try to find time to include all perspectives, but that might not be realistic.

And it may not be possible to offer equal time for all views. Again, we need to make choices. But with all these challenges we need to be true to ourselves, our colleagues, our editor and, most importantly, to our audience in order to demonstrate that we have been fair and that we have not ignored any significant voices.

We might know someone involved in the story. It could be a friend or a relative. We might have covered a similar story before, and there might be some historical issues that we are aware of that could compromise our ability to report accurately and fairly. In all cases we need to share these involvements with our senior editorial team.

Sometimes we may not be able to see the possible conflict of interests or areas that could lead to accusations that we have not been open and impartial. It’s always best to talk these things through with senior colleagues. Keeping quiet is not an option and certainly never the solution.

Editorial discussions with colleagues will help formulate this policy case by case. A journalist should not struggle alone.

Controversial subjects might involve the coverage of politics, religion, sexual practices, human relationships, and financial dealings. In all cases, we must ensure that a wide range of views and perspectives is aired.

Opinion and fact

We also need to ensure that opinion is clearly distinguished from fact. We might also need to ensure that some views are reflected in our output, even if we find them repulsive. We have a duty to inform the public debate regardless of our own personal point of view and preferences.

When our own media organisation becomes the story, perhaps bad financial news, a sacking, a drugs scandal, poor ratings, etc, we need to ensure that we are prepared to report on news affecting us as we would on news affecting others.

Balanced reporting

Sometimes journalists talk about offering ‘balanced’ reporting. That is not realistic. Life is not balanced and nor is the journalism that reports on life.

It might be that a story is so one-sided that to try to offer so-called ‘balance’ makes a mockery of the report. In such cases, we should aim to offer other perspectives later in the programme or in a later bulletin. We can ensure we offer all sides a chance to air their views in our online coverage.

Personal views offering one side of a story can often add fresh public understanding of an issue and encourage debate. These can include the views of victims and those who feel that they, or others, have been wronged. Such personal views can be highly partial. In such cases, it is important we make it clear to the audience that the views being expressed offer one side only.

Alternative points of view

For those involved in broadcasting there is a need to try to find alternative points of view within the same programme strand or within the next bulletin. In all cases we must:

  • retain a respect for factual accuracy
  • fairly represent opposing points of view except when inappropriate, defamatory or incendiary
  • provide an opportunity to reply
  • ensure that a sufficiently broad range of views and perspectives is included
  • ensure that these are broadcast in similar output, measure, and time of day.

With online debates, we need to protect the audience from being led to believe that the views being discussed are endorsed by our media organisation. To do so we must:

  • not endorse or support any personal views or campaigns
  • make a clear distinction between our content and that created by the audience
  • make clear what resources we are providing.

Take a look at these other modules on Media Helping Media to help you keep your journalism up to the highest standards.

False equivalence and false balance

Unconscious bias and its impact on journalism

Accuracy in journalism

David Brewer
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is the founder and editor of Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast, and online. He was the managing editor of BBC News Online when the site launched, the managing editor of International EMEA setting out the editorial proposition, hiring staff and overseeing the launch, the managing editor for the launch of CNN Arabic in Dubai, and a launch consultant for Al Jazeera English in Qatar. He has spent many years delivering journalism training worldwide, mainly in transition and post-conflict countries. He is currently mentoring journalists and editors of refugee and exiled media and helping train journalists in countries where the media is still developing.