Why “Fairness” in Journalism Can Be Problematic

Growing up, a parent is supposed to tell their child to share. Some kids hate it, but it’s an important part of childhood. Share your toys. Share your food. Share your feelings. It’s only fair. 

Fairness is often misconstrued to mean the same thing as being balanced, of every opinion sharing the spotlight. But sometimes that conversation can become toxic when brought into journalism. 

In life, equal is different from fair, but this doesn’t always come out in journalism. In order for the public to deem a news publication as reliable, the public assumes that all issues need two sides equally presented with equal airtime and print space. It’s what reputable institutions are based on. It’s the very foundation of trust between reporter and viewer. But in many issues—especially hot-button issues such as climate change and vaccine denial—that’s not exactly right. In fact, it can be quite dangerous. 

We’ve all heard about the looming monster of “fake news.” The term has been used a lot throughout the last few years, specifically after investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. In fact, everyone seems to be pretty split in terms of believing what’s reported by the media, according to Hill-HarrisX. 

Forty-one percent of participants “believe most news stories, but do not trust certain sources.” 26 percent of participants said just the opposite. And an equal 17 percent both said that they always or never believe the news. Sure, this is also affected by each person’s individual beliefs and where they get their news, but it’s still very startling. 

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission issued a policy called the Fairness Doctrine governed every news department in the world. It was a set of journalistic rules that governed what was legally honest and “fair.” It required broadcasters to devote airtime to controversial topics and contrasting views, while not requiring equal airtime or coverage. It merely made people recognize the other side of the aisle. It was considered balanced. But in 1987, the law came under investigation and was ultimately revoked. Today, it is widely credited with the explosion of conservative talk radio and the rise of FOX News. 

Being the foundation of news for so long, many depended on it as a layout for what good news is. Viewers expected the truth. Journalists sought out both sides. But the law was written by those without experience in journalism. They didn’t quite understand the impact they were having on the very foundations. It was created for truth and conversation but resulted in a lazy habit of polarization. If both opinions are expressed, one can always just argue that they’re right. 

One could even argue that the reason why older generations flock toward flashy conservative news organizations instead of the liberal stations they might have watched in their youth is the change of the law. If you believe all stations have an aspect of forced “fairness,” one is going to pay attention to a station where they feel entertained and informed. Many liberal-leaning stations just lack that edge to compete. 

The climate crisis is a hot-button issue right now. Not only is it popular among the news, but the population. Scientists have been backing up the argument that the earth is warming because of CO2 levels since the 19th century when it was called “Greenhouse Effect.” And yet, whenever the issue is brought up, climate change deniers get the same amount of air time as supporters. Many news stations saw it as being “fair.” Even though the scientific world is against them. Even though the public is against them. The conversation is continuing to shift. So why isn’t the coverage? Is that really fair?

That’s the question legendary TV writer Aaron Sorkin decided to investigate in his award-winning series The Newsroom, based on an NBC-like news station and its questions of fairness vs. popularity in the news. He seemed to have found the answer, but then again the series only lasted three seasons on HBO. 

If false claims are given a lot of emphasis, they have the capacity to become perceived facts in the court of public opinion—and the public’s opinion is everything. They’re who watch the news. They’re who vote people into office. “Fairness” can become problematic when it shifts public opinion, draws deep polarizing rifts between the population and spreads fake news—things it has been doing for decades now. 

It’s time to end fairness in the newsroom. It’s about time the full truth prevailed.