Our podcast: Digital News Report 2021. Episode 6. Do people want impartial news?

"These partisan voices have their role. But people really a clear dividing line between that and the news," says our researcher Craig T. Robertson

The topic

This episode of our DNR 2021 podcast series looks at impartiality and news and whether news audiences value journalism that takes particular perspectives on certain issues or news which presents a range of views leaving it up to the public to decide between them.

The speakers

Craig T. Robertson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute. His research focuses on news trust and credibility, fact-checking and verification, and how both partisan attitudes and epistemic beliefs factor into these domains.

Our host Federica Cherubini is Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with ten years' experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.

The podcast

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The transcript

According to the BBC, defining impartiality is easy. It means reflecting all sides of arguments and not favouring any sides. But we know that, in practice, this is much more difficult to implement and in some situations more than others. We’ve seen, for example, many newsrooms discussing internally what approach to take ahead of the 2020 US presidential election in case claims of a stolen election were made with no evidence and whether it was appropriate to argue against this. For the Digital News Report, Craig, you looked at this issue with a specific focus on four countries: Brazil, Germany, the UK and the US. What did you find?

Craig: Well, put simply, there is strong evidence that people want news to be impartial. That’s the ideal people hold to. So we looked at this topic in both our survey of 46 markets and we also drove deeper into the topic with focus groups and interviews in four countries: Brazil, Germany, the UK and the US. 

We picked those four markets because of their different media laws and regulations, audience profiles, journalism histories, etcetera. Across these countries, we found that people hold strongly onto the ideal of impartial journalism. So three quarters of people, for instance, say that when you’re reporting on social and political issues news outlets should reflect a range of different views and leave it up to people to decide for themselves. So, in general, few people want journalists to argue for particular points of view. And the same goes for the idea of neutrality. The majority of people want news outlets to remain very neutral on every issue.

Federica: You’ve also asked people whether news outlets should give equal time to all sides when reporting on social and political issues even when reporting on issues where one side has a clearly weaker argument. What do people say?

Craig: So there’s quite an interesting story here. In our survey, the vast majority of people said news outlets should give equal time to all sides so few people said news outlets should give less time to sides with weaker arguments. But there was more of a sense that sometimes it might be appropriate to limit the time given. So our interviews get more into the nuances of this. Of course, it always depends what topic we’re talking about. So, in general, people think equal time is a good idea. But for instance among younger people and those on the left in particular, they say it’s sometimes not a good idea to give equal time to anti vaxers or climate change deniers for example.

And that’s especially if the weight of evidence, particularly the scientific evidence, is on one side. If that’s the case, then we can limit some alternative views. But what’s interesting to note is that people strongly express a discomfort with the idea of excluding these views entirely, especially on political topics. So there’s quite a hesitancy about that. People say that maybe you can give these views less time but you shouldn’t entirely shun these views. These are views we need to talk about, get out in the open and deal with. 

One interviewee in Germany, for example, said these anti-vaccination opinions exist so we have to see them. We shouldn’t just sweep things under the table and then suddenly be surprised the anti-vaxxers are everywhere. So let’s talk about them, lay the evidence out and let people see actually what’s going on. They say it’s a bad idea to hide these views away and let them fester underneath the surface. 

And in the UK and the US, there is a marketplace of ideas approach that people take. People say bad arguments will be shown to be weaker against stronger ones. So they say let those bad arguments condemn themselves out in the public sphere. And then it’s particularly older people that seem to be more strongly hold on to these kinds of impartial views.

Federica: I think one of the most interesting insights in your chapter is related to the journalistic debate about false equivalence. Are there any issues where it makes no sense for news outlets to be neutral? Some people would mention topics like climate change or COVID-19 vaccines or racial injustice or domestic violence. What do people think about this?

Craig: Yes, so this gets into those topical nuances that we don’t quite capture with the survey questions. People’s views shift with the topic at hand. So most people, when asked, say, “Yeah. It doesn’t make sense to be neutral about topics like racism or domestic violence. These topics don’t have another side to present or argue. So racism is bad. Domestic violence is bad. So let’s say that journalists can say these things.” 

These are moral and legal issues that people recognise that there’s a line to draw on. But when it gets into partisan politics; that’s particularly when people want journalists to maintain their neutrality. So it always comes back to politics at the end of the day. So some people even said since climate change and vaccines have become political in a way, especially in the United States, journalists need to present the evidence and stay neutral – to stay objective. 

Federica: You mentioned that your knowledge relies on survey data but also on focus groups and in-depth interviews with audience members and you quote a couple of things, but generally, what have you learned from those more nuanced conversations?

Craig: As I say, the nuanced conversations really get into the topical differences that we don’t really get into with the survey. So people’s opinions obviously shift with what we’re talking about. People said, “Well obviously if a dam breaks and floods the valley there is a single view of that. That’s what happened. The dam broke, the valley flooded. But if we start to get into the hows and whys of things – about value judgements, for example, then journalists need to take an impartial approach. 

It’s essentially about whether there are differences in views on a topic. So when there are differences in points of view, people want journalists to remain as objective as possible. There was a shift between these very obvious, definitive things like a car crash or a house burned down – these are very obvious things that you can be straightforward about. But then as we move into more value judgement sides of things – how did that happen? Why did that happen? That’s when people want more of an impartial take on things; when you need to present both sides or different sides of arguments.

Federica: So the data suggests people still care about the ideal of impartiality and yet we live in an increasingly polarised society where partisan voices make themselves heard in the public square and quite loudly in some cases. How do you interpret the data in light of this? 

Craig: Well, people say there’s a place for both. These partisan voices have their role in the public discussion and so do impartial news providers. These things have different functions as people say when we talk to them. So they admit that they’re often drawn to these partisan voices; particularly divisive television personalities like Piers Morgan and they say they’re fun, they’re interesting, they tell it like it is, it’s entertainment, it’s insightful sometimes. But what people really want is a clear dividing line between that and the news. 

People want that baseline of impartial, straight forward reporting; just the facts. And then, if they want it, they can go off to see these opinions elsewhere where they expect to find them; like on these TV shows or podcasts, for example. So the dividing line is important and people sometimes feel like the line between reporting and partial reporting and opinion gets too blurred and they really do want that dividing line so they know what they’re getting when they’re getting it.

Federica: Finally, public service broadcasters are often at the centre of these debates about impartiality. They are sometimes accused of being biased and sometimes accused of amplifying baseless or bigoted arguments. How should they navigate these issues in light of what audiences say they want?

Craig: I like what one of our interviewees in the UK said. She said, “The BBC is renowned for being this staid source. The advice for them is to carry on what you’re doing. Don’t go to the left. Don’t go to the right. Sit there in the middle and report on what is happening in the world.” 

Broadcasters in the UK obviously have this requirement for due impartiality and people want them to stick to that. People want the BBC to strongly stick to this impartiality ideal because that’s their role so don’t sensationalise or add opinions. Lay out the story and the opinion stuff can be left to others. 

As I said, there’s plenty of that out there. But the BBC’s role, for example, is to be this reliable source of factual, impartial reporting. That will always attract criticism from both sides of course. That’s kind of what happens when you’re trying to play things straight down the middle. But our data really shows how people really rely on a source like the BBC so it’s important to stick to that impartial line. In terms of amplifying the baseless or bigoted arguments out there, that’s a difficult tight rope to walk.

That’s where the due part of due impartiality comes in. It doesn’t mean giving full licence for certain views to be aired. If all the facts point in one direction, for example, that’s what can be said. If it’s science or something like that. But there’s a responsibility for them to lay out the facts, contextualise the views and show people what the story is. At the end of the day, people really just want the right to decide for themselves but they need all those facts in that context.

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