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Impartiality unpacked: a study of four countries

Impartiality unpacked: a study of four countries

As the BBC observes, ‘defining impartiality is easy … it means reflecting all sides of arguments and not favouring any side’.1 But what this looks like in practice can become complicated as journalists grapple with different topics, public debates, and ways of presenting engaging news. Moreover, many newspapers across the world have long had a clear editorial stance and, in the US, Fox News has demonstrated how money can be made from catering to partisan audiences in broadcast. Meanwhile, the BBC has renewed its commitment to impartial journalism, as have some commercial news media, such as Reuters. But partisan viewpoints are now more accessible than ever, especially online, and they can be attractive to audiences. This all raises the question: how important is impartial and objective journalism to audiences?

In this chapter, we explore what audiences want from news; whether that is impartial coverage or news which takes more of a point of view. We focus here on four countries – Brazil, Germany, the UK, and the US – with different news markets, traditions of public broadcasting, and systems of media regulation. To delve deeper into audience views, we supplement survey data with insights from focus groups and in-depth interviews in these markets, conducted from February to March 2021 with politically and racially/ethnically diverse groups of older and younger people interested in and engaged with news (52 people in total).

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People want news outlets to present a range of views and let them decide

One of the most basic questions when it comes to impartial reporting is: should journalists present a range of views in their reports, leaving it up to the public to decide between them? This aligns with the idea that impartiality means treating different views fairly and without favour. In contrast, should certain views be promoted or argued in favour of? This point has been made, for example, with respect to the 2020 US Presidential elections: if claims of a ‘stolen’ election lacked evidence, it was appropriate to argue against this notion.

In our data, we find that a clear majority of people in all markets wants news outlets, when reporting on social and political issues, to reflect a range of different views and leave it to them to decide. Few are in favour of news outlets ‘arguing for the views that they think are the best’. There is slightly more support for this minority position among younger people (under-35s) and those on the political left, but it remains a smaller percentage. We note, of course, that views often depend on the subject matter. We asked generally about ‘social and political issues’, but views may have been different if we asked, for instance, about reporting on vaccines. Indeed, topical nuances are reflected in our focus group data.

In general, among our focus group participants, the strong sentiment across the board is that people have the right to form their own opinions about issues, uninfluenced by the views of journalists. This is particularly so for more interpretive political issues, where people are uncomfortable with the idea of journalists making value judgements for them.

With subjects on politics and, I think, with COVID-19 – with really more hard news – I think it is really important to remain neutral and allow the reader or listener or the watcher to make their decisions on their own about how they feel about something.
F, 21, UK, left-leaning

However, participants do note that there are some less interpretive topics (e.g. science stories, natural events) where journalists can present just one perspective or established point of view.

If a dam breaks and floods a valley, there is only one view of that really: the dam broke and it flooded, so that is it. [But] I think it’s very important for all journalistic delivery to be impartial when there are multiple viewpoints available.
M, 58, US, centre

Importantly, people delineate here between news reporting (where impartiality is expected) and opinion/commentary (where it may be expected that views are argued for) – though they say it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between them as news outlets and formats are often seen to blend the two. Interviewees like news and they like opinion, but want them very clearly separated. Analysis falls between these and, though it brings a risk of perceived bias, is seen as more acceptable if provided by experts.

Focus group participants also acknowledge that impartiality is difficult the more informal a news format becomes – but that this can be okay if, because of the format (e.g. podcasts, social media), points of view are expected. When sought out, the draw of more informal and opinionated styles – especially divisive broadcast presenters – is that they can be insightful and entertaining. While impartial reporting is the ideal standard, some interviewees do admit that it can be less engaging.

People think equal time should be given to different sides of debates

Next, when reporting on social and political issues, should news outlets give equal time to all sides or give less time to sides they think have a weaker argument? This question taps into debates about balance in news reporting and whether adherence to this norm can be detrimental, creating a ‘false equivalence’ such as when one perspective with scientific evidence behind it is ‘balanced’ against another lacking scientific support. This is an issue which has, in the past, been pointed out when it comes to coverage of climate change (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; Hiles and Hinnant 2014).

So, what do our survey respondents think? Again, it is the same story: the majority of people in all markets think news outlets should give equal time to all sides. Only a minority think news outlets should give less time to sides with weaker arguments.

But, again, there is somewhat more support for this position among younger age groups (under-35s). Moreover, sizeable minorities of people on the political left think weaker arguments should be given less time: in Germany it is 24% (compared to 10% on the right), in the UK it is 22% (compared to 7%), and in the US it is 35% (compared to 5%). Among our interviewees from this group, when it comes to Donald Trump’s false claims of a ‘stolen’ election, the scientific evidence for climate change, and Coronavirus vaccinations, there is less appetite for giving time to another ‘side’ that is seen to lack validity.

Yet people generally express discomfort with the idea of journalists excluding points of view entirely – especially on politicised issues – and say different voices should be heard. Due to this concern, the issue of ‘false equivalence’ in many ways does not resonate with interviewees. If it does, they tend to express concern about others being misled, less so themselves.

Often a more pressing concern is with the consequence of excluding (political) perspectives. They feel false equivalence can be avoided by properly framing different perspectives. In the US and UK, there is the view, particularly among older interviewees, that different perspectives should be subject to the marketplace of ideas: bad arguments will be shown to be weaker when presented against stronger ones. Some feel that a good approach is to bring in different sides, contextualise them, and let the evidence play out. And for interviewees in Germany, there is often seen to be value in shedding light on alternative views, even if they might be fringe perspectives.

These [anti-vaccination] opinions exist, so we have to see them … Do not just sweep it under the table and then suddenly be surprised that something exists. You have to acknowledge its presence.
F, 47, Germany, left-leaning

But it is acknowledged by some that balance may not need to be 50/50 in all cases: views shift with the topic. Particularly among younger people and those on the left, the view is that giving less time to a perspective can be acceptable if the weight of evidence is on one side (and especially if the alternative view is potentially harmful or not in the public interest).

Voices that are against vaccination, I think it is not appropriate to give them the same space as the space that is given for these pro-vaccination campaigns. Because it is a question that has already been proven and concerns the public interest.
F, 30, Brazil, left-leaning

But, in general, across countries, interviewees say that different views should be acknowledged and brought into public discussion so they can be dealt with (even if they might not be afforded the same weight).

Most people want news outlets to remain neutral, but a large minority says this sometimes makes no sense

Finally, are there are some issues where it makes no sense for news outlets to be neutral? This question taps into conversations around the lines that journalism should draw when it comes to certain social justice issues: does it make sense for journalists to be neutral about issues that do not have an ‘opposing argument’? However, the alternative perspective here may be that journalists themselves should not give a view, instead remaining impartial and letting people with relevant knowledge and experience speak.

The story here is consistent with what we have found so far: the majority of people across markets think that news outlets should try to remain neutral.

Yet, compared with our other questions, a larger minority of people across markets do think there are some issues where neutrality does not make sense. It is also again clear who is more likely to be in this substantial minority: younger people and those on the political left.

Among those aged 18–24, 40% in Brazil, 34% in Germany, 38% in the UK, and 30% in the US think it makes no sense to be neutral on some issues. The percentage of those aged over 55 who think the same ranges from 19% in Germany to 30% in Brazil, with the US (22%) and UK (26%) in between. As for those on the political left, the percentage of people who think neutrality sometimes does not make sense ranges from 36% in Germany to over half in the US (54%).

For younger people, it may be that, while they want facts, they are idealistic and see impartial news as less engaging, lacking authenticity, and failing to further social justice causes, instead perpetuating the status quo (Marchi 2012). For those on the political left, the danger of radical right-wing views and the scourge of racism emerge as reasons for not remaining neutral.

Indeed, issues of social justice inform people’s position on neutrality, with some (especially younger and left-leaning) people saying there can be an ethical justification for being non-neutral. In the UK, US, and Brazil, the sentiment is that there is less need to be neutral when it comes to issues such as racism and domestic violence.

I think as soon as you cross that border of something becoming illegal and just pure wrong, I don’t think they should get airtime.
M, 28, UK, left-leaning

Meanwhile, in Germany, there is a strong feeling among most interviewees that different perspectives should be illuminated and presented impartially as part of democracy. But, because of Germany’s history, the line is drawn when it comes to unconstitutional views.

The showstopper for me is the constitution and criminal law. If the opinion breaks neither of those, which stuff like Holocaust denial [does break], then you can say what you want. If it does break those laws or also ends up hurting a person that way, then it should clearly be censored.
M, 30, Germany, right-leaning

Conclusion

Our survey and focus group data tell us that, while impartial or objective journalism is increasingly questioned by some, overall people strongly support the ideal of impartial news. People want the right to decide for themselves. That means journalists giving the facts plainly and simply, duly and fairly presenting different perspectives, not excluding points of view, and keeping their own opinions out of news reports (relying instead on those of interviewees). This is not easy to do in practice, or for every issue, and our focus groups show that the public understands that – but our data also suggest that recognising that complexity does not seem to dampen people’s commitment to impartial news.

People’s views do become nuanced the more they are explored. Some note that you can’t be neutral about some fundamental principles (e.g. racism is a hard line) or matters of fact (e.g. human-induced climate change), acknowledge that expectations of impartiality and balance can vary by subject matter, and say evidence-based judgements (from experts) may sometimes be appropriate when the issue is definitive.

Older people and those on the political right tend to more strongly advocate for the inclusion of all perspectives. But among younger people and those on the political left, these feelings are weaker. It may be that these latter groups are more attuned to issues which make them think differently. Here, social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, which took off on the social media platforms that younger people turn to and which have found support on the political left, as well as concerns about rising science scepticism and right-wing extremism, inform views on the role of journalists in being more decisive. There is emphasis on journalism’s duty to accuracy and to the facts, as well as to morality and social justice.

Yet, even among this constituency there is a strong feeling that impartial journalism is important – and there is a reluctance to have journalists favour one perspective or exclude points of view (unless they are harmful). Most people, once they have the facts, do want to be exposed to range of views.

Moreover, what our focus group participants tell us is that they recognise they are often drawn to partial news. But what people say they want is a reliable baseline of impartial, straightforward, factual reporting; beyond this, they can go off to explore opinions elsewhere where they expect to find them (e.g. social media, podcasts, chat shows, editorial pages).

The BBC and ITV … are renowned for being those staid sources. The advice [for them] is carry on what you are doing; don’t go left, don’t go right, sit there in the middle and report on what is happening. But if you don’t have the alternatives, like those with a bit of partiality to them … then wouldn’t we all be in a boring world? To hear somebody else’s point of view it is healthy.
F, 43, UK, right-leaning

A challenge for the industry is how to provide this desired mix – and how to make impartial and objective reporting engaging or entertaining without straying into partiality. This can become difficult, as people note, as platforms and formats (e.g. social media, podcasts) become more informal and genres more mixed or harder to tell apart. Practices of impartiality need to adapt to these new ways of producing and consuming news, but our evidence indicates that people strongly support impartiality ideals, even in countries with very different media systems and traditions.

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Footnotes

1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/guidance/impartiality