What People Want When They Want Impartial News - BCB #50
Also: Partisan support for foreign intervention has flipped, and the failure of anti-abortion laws show Red tensions
New research on what “impartial” means to audiences
Over the last decade or so, American journalists have increasingly criticized the concept of “objectivity” on the grounds that there aren’t necessarily two sides to every story. If one side is lying or fringe or just morally repugnant, then false balance serves no one.
Yet some version of “objectivity” or “neutrality” remains popular with audiences. A 2021 study by the Reuters Institute found that clear majorities (65-75%) in Brazil, India, the U.K., and the U.S. agreed that news outlets “should reflect a range of views,” “try to be neutral,” and “leave it up to audiences to decide.”
There were partisan differences though:
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.
Now, a new study reports on in-depth interviews and focus groups with 132 individuals, trying to figure out what people mean when they say things like “impartiality,” “neutrality,” and “objectivity.” Overall, people defined impartiality as reporting facts without taking sides, consistent with academic definitions. But rather than being concerned that coverage was not diverse enough or not properly balanced in some way, respondents were more worried that editorial decisions and news production would be influenced either by partisan politics or profit-seeking. The researchers found that,
where people perceived that news organizations had violated expectations of impartiality, it was often less due to specific critiques concerning the content of news itself and more rooted in more general beliefs held about the covert or overt agendas underlying how news organizations and journalists made editorial decisions about what they covered and how stories were framed.
While it’s surely the case that pretending one doesn’t have an opinion can prevent sane discussion of insane events, most news consumers don’t want journalists to abandon their commitment to some sort of impartiality. But when pressed, it turns out they mostly worry about hidden agendas, rather than neutrality itself.
The partisan split on foreign policy has flipped
Partisanship shapes foreign policy just as it influences domestic affairs. At the beginning of the Iraq war, Pew polling showed that around 9 in 10 Republicans supported going to war compared to about half of Democrats. Currently, the situation is quite the opposite. Geoffrey Skelley from FiveThirtyEight points out that over 60% of Democrats now support U.S. involvement in world affairs.
While there’s no single reason for this trend, Skelley theorizes it came out of Trump’s rise to power and his stance on limited U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. This in turn may have led Blue to polarize and oppose Trump’s position. In this sense, foreign policy has to appeal to the voter base just like domestic policies.
Additionally, it's very likely that during George W. Bush’s presidency, he gained support from Republicans while facing opposition from Democrats. Now a Democratic president pushing for more involvement in Ukraine gains support from Democrats and opposition from Republicans. Skelley notes that these surveys primarily focused on military involvement, but it is probable that Americans are less divided on other forms of foreign involvement like trade or diplomacy. Also, there’s no evidence to suggest that America has become more isolationist, only that the partisan divide has flipped.
Defeat of two anti-abortion bills in Red states illustrates internal divisions
Two Red-controlled states, Nebraska and South Carolina, recently failed to pass anti-abortion bills. Nebraska fell short of passing a six-week pregnancy ban by just one vote due to a filibuster, while South Carolina lawmakers voted 22-21 against a total abortion ban. Meanwhile, support for easier access to abortion rose from 31% in 2019 to 43% this year in states where abortion is now illegal. These early trends suggest an anti-abortion backlash may be underway, underscoring an overlooked rift between Red voters and legislators.
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux from FiveThirtyEight reports,
On the first day of debate in the South Carolina Senate, all three Republican women in the chamber said they refused to vote for the bill if it didn’t contain rape and incest exceptions. “Are we simply baby machines? Are you pregnant with a dead baby? Too bad. Raped at 11 by your grandfather and got pregnant? That’s just too bad,” said Sen. Penry Gustafson, a Republican.
While Red voters generally agree with the idea of banning abortions, they quickly divide over the details,
In August, more than half of the Republicans in the Indiana House of Representatives voted to remove rape and incest exceptions from the near-total ban they were considering. (The law eventually passed with limited rape and incest exceptions and will go into effect on Sept. 15.) The same month, the West Virginia Legislature deadlocked on its own sweeping abortion ban because Republicans couldn’t agree on the penalties for doctors, leaving the procedure legal in the state. Similar debates could unfold in other states like Ohio, Iowa, and Nebraska, which have conservative legislatures but no law that fully bans abortion.
The reality is that few people are completely pro-life or completely pro-choice, yet the extreme ends of the debate make all the noise. It is simultaneously true that a majority of Americans believe that abortions should be legal in some cases and that a majority of Americans believe that abortions should be illegal in some cases. A more focused debate centers around how late abortion should be performed, as most Americans on both sides agree that the length of pregnancy should determine if an abortion should happen.
However, the issue remains too divisive for lawmakers to take a more nuanced stance. Thomson-DeVeaux reports,
“I’m very much a conservative on this issue, but you have to acknowledge the fact that there are tragic and cruel circumstances where it’s presumptive, edging on hubris, to say that people can’t make their own decisions,” Rep. Micah Caskey, who proposed an amendment that would have created a limited exception for rape and incest victims who are minors, told FiveThirtyEight. “Yet there are purists who want to paint me as not pro-life for saying that.”
Quote of the Week
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?
– Female Right-leaning respondent, aged 43 from the U.K., Reuters Institute study
When - and why - did the US news media get the idea that impartiality meant finding two sides to every question and presenting both of them as equals? That feels like someone converted a rule of thumb, applicable to cases where there's real disagreement between reasonable people, into an iron law that primarily benefitted those that 99% of the readership would otherwise have considered whack-a-loons?
There's obviously risk in judging the border between reasonable disagreement and loony-tunes nonsense - the opinions of the richer/more elite/more hegemonic tend to look more "reasonable" than those of the poor/uneducated/stupid/minority.
But digging for a representative nutter in order to appear balanced? I'd say "only in America", but the practice seems a bit more widespread.