Even Handedness in Reporting: Whose Side Are You On?

BC Blue, 2009
Photo courtesy of Rowland Keshena

There are two sides to every story. Knowing whether or not both sides deserve equal merit in reporting is a dilemma that journalists face in some situations. For the public, the media has an obligation to provide an evenhanded approach to reporting. It is the reporter’s duty to be cognizant of this function and to present all sides of a story. In doing so, a sufficient amount background on the subject must be given for the reader to have the context in which to draw his or her own conclusions about the story.

Determining the public interest without imposing too much of one’s own judgments or seeming apathetic are elements that a journalist must manage in reporting. Subjectivity is a part of the human condition and reporters are no exception. Many reporters are encouraged to impart their opinions, particularly columnists. The approach that journalists take in reporting is of great consequence in shaping the readers’ psyche. In his famous essay, "The Dark Continent of American Journalism", Carey writes: “We need not only to know but to understand, not only to grasp but to take an attitude toward the events and personalities that pass before us” (Carey, 1986, Pg. 307). Readers glean much of their awareness about the world around them from what is conveyed by the media.

“How” and “why,” seek to provide the necessary context but as Carey indicates, answers to these critical questions are often lacking from daily reporting. “Why and how attempt to supply this depth, even if honored every day largely in the breach.” (Carey, 1986, Pg. 307). The oversimplification of complex issues, precipitous deadlines, and the inability to transcend cultural barriers can all hinder responsible communication through media rhetoric.

Christie Blatchford, a Globe and Mail columnist and court reporter, spoke in a phone interview about her duties as a reporter and a columnist. “When I cover trials I am even-handed. If the evidence is multi-sided, I provide both sides.” She said that as a columnist, she has an obligation to be fair, but "I don’t have an obligation to be neutral.” Blatchford’s straightforward approach to writing has been criticized: “Many days I hear how I can't write this, its not fair, its not balanced […] I think that I’m a columnist and not a straight reporter. A columnist is encouraged to imbue their opinion in their writing but it doesn’t give them the right to be inaccurate.”

Blatchford’s opinion is both her trademark and her livelihood and she makes no claim to neutrality. She does purport to represent both sides in court testimony and presents the evidence as it is heard in court. But what if there are external factors that should also be given equal consideration? After reading many of Blatchford’s columns on one topic in particular - the subject of her book on Caledonia, Helpless - I am inclined to ask: are journalists in pursuit of the real truth, or only their version of it?

In 2006, Caledonia, Ontario garnered national media attention when it became the centre of a land dispute involving Aboriginals on the Six Nations of the Grand River and Henco Industries Ltd., which had purchased the land along the Grand River from the federal government. The Six Nations believed that their title to the land was never relinquished. When Henco began the development of what was then known as the Douglas Creek Estates, the Six Nations formed a blockade in protest. Residents of Caledonia were affected by the blockade - particularly those who had purchased homes on or nearby the disputed land.

These third-party interests were largely dismissed by the Ontario Provincial Police and government in the wake of the tragic outcome of a similar scenario in 1995 when First Nations protesters occupied land at Ipperwash, Provincial Park in Ontario. Dudley George, an unarmed native protester, was shot and killed by Sergeant Ken Deane who was subsequently charged with criminal negligence causing death. A public inquiry was launched eight years later.

On the heels of the Ipperwash controversy, the OPP were expected to enforce a court-ordered injunction to remove the Aboriginal protesters from the disputed land in Caledonia. After the Aboriginals refused to leave the Douglas Creek Estates development site, the provincial government purchased the land from Henco and allowed the blockade to continue although many Aboriginal protesters were arrested. This eventually led to what Blatchford calls a two-tiered justice system for Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals.

She considered the system for Aboriginals too lenient. The blockade was in place for several months during which time some Caledonia residents were harassed and eventually displaced from their homes. “Natives who routinely and sometimes violently broke the law but nonetheless played the victim; […] and a small town where flying the Mohawk Warrior flag was deemed perfectly fine, but doing the same thing with the Canadian flag was held to be provocative: Welcome to Caledonia, Ont., circa 2006.” (Blatchford, Nov 2009).

Blatchford paints an unfavourable picture of Aboriginal people, one that seems to embody the entire Aboriginal population who fight what she refers to as “tenuous land claims.” This picture is, in part, due to the egregious actions of Aboriginal protesters but also the vivid depiction made by Blatchford who, through her writing, allows the actions of a few to speak for the masses. The narrative becomes one of patriotism for a beloved country and its opposition, the anti-hero.

Caledonia residents, Dave Brown and Dana Chatwell, sued the OPP and Queen’s Park for their inaction during the blockade. In covering the civil trial, Blatchford justifiably focused her columns on Brown and Chatwell as the victims of police and government inaction. Still, in her references to the “natives,” she created a one-sided narrative of Aboriginal nationalism attained through lawless means.

Blatchford argued that the she was covering the evidence heard in court and was not attempting to “write history.” She said that the “Six Nations wasn’t a party to the suit […]. All of the evidence heard in court including the Brown testimony was aimed at OPP and the government,” she said. “The land claim was peripheral in the context of what happened.”

Peripheral or not, though, the Six Nations were implicated in Blatchford's work and their voices were absent.

She writes the plaintiff, “Mr. Brown was a social animal known as 'the Q king' for his many barbecues, desperately proud of his hard-working entrepreneurial wife and of Dax – [who] very nearly came undone while government officials worried about the protest spreading across the country and were thus obsessed with appeasing the native occupiers, and the police turned a blind eye.” (Blatchford, Oct 2008). Absent from the column was representation of chief and council, the federally imposed governing body on Aboriginal reserves. Also absent were the opinions of fair-minded Aboriginal people, who might not sanction the violence or terror of third party-interests affected by the blockade on the disputed land.

Blatchford says: “In the context of what we were covering, that wasn’t important. You don’t write about stuff that happens outside of the courtroom; you write about the other stuff.” Carey would argue that context helps to answer “how and why” so the readers have a complete picture. Blatchford’s court reports, in isolation of any Aboriginal land claim history or the social and environmental issues faced by the Aboriginal population, created a narrative that didn't garner sympathy for their cause. In short, the reporting didn't ask readers to think beyond the situation or the plaintiff’s court testimony. No direct judgment was made, but there was a very convincing innuendo:

“Outside, chanting and drumming from the protesters was relentless, he said, threats and trespassing onto his property a daily occurrence, and with much of the most overt lawlessness - among the undisputed incidents, natives burned down a wooden bridge, threw a car over an overpass, terrorized anyone who strayed close to the site for a look, including an elderly couple and out-of-town police officers, and damaged a hydro transformer to the tune of $1-million - occurring under the very noses of the police, Mr. Brown became afraid to sleep.” (Blatchford, Nov. 2009).

First Nations issues are complex. Their “self-governing” and constitutional rights are often usurped by both federal and provincial legislation, environmental policies, and the Indian Act, which is the Canadian statute governing all “registered indians.” Land claims are ongoing and the legal process is long and drawn-out, a point of frustration for many Aboriginal communities. The colonial history and clash of cultures has placed undue stress on Aboriginal communities. “The causes are intimately linked to its consequences.” (Carey, 1986, Pg. 321). These multi-dimensional factors make reporting on First Nations issues difficult but are integral in answering the how and why.

In 2002, the University of Ulster hosted a seminar on children, media, and reporting conflict with a focus on divided societies, such as Israel and Palestine and North and South Ireland. A common theme emerged concerning the children who had grown up in conflict: “Children don’t want peace because it means the other side has won.” (Davies, 2008, Pg. 307). Children are not indifferent to prevailing political attitudes. Reporting not only informs its audience but an unintended audience is indirectly affected by the public perception.

Stories that represent one side have significant implications on the younger generation and how they interpret news. Children, who identify with one culture while another is placed in its opposition, have a reductive understanding of the issues, or an oversimplified view of conflict likened to a school-yard fight of winners and losers. “Simply confirming our prejudices isn’t reporting, and it isn’t journalism—it’s propaganda” (Davies, 2008, Pg. 307). The best way to mitigate this is through the verification of facts to ascertain an objective truth but to also include enough background so the reader has a depth of information with which to draw conclusions. Seen in this light, Blatchford's reporting has done a disservice by representing only one side of the Caledonia dispute while implicating the other. She offers a narrow view of the Aboriginal perspective and presents this to her audience. The audience, in turn, remains uninformed regarding the issues at the heart of the matter.

Our job as journalists is to “connect the disconnected.” We do this by presenting both sides of the story or we form opinions by making fair assertions in some cases. In Foreman’s text, The Ethical Journalist, he talks about the complexities in covering other cultures. One of the major problems he cites, that has already been mentioned, occurs when journalists select a single voice or a few people to represent the entire group or movement.

Discussing the issues of reporting politics in Ireland, Davies writes: “The way in which the media report, and reported, the struggle in Northern Ireland is an interesting case study from the point of view of having to be 'fair and balanced.' Again—fair to whom? If you believe in a united Ireland, you are unlikely to want to hear the point of view of people who want to stay part of Britain; and vice versa.” (Davies, 2008, Pg. 306). News tends to package stories of political strife so that they are far simpler for readers than they are for the players involved. The lack of balance in Blatchford’s reporting on Caledonia raises the same question, “fair to whom?”

Fairness and balance are subjective qualities. Kovach and Rosenstiel say that, “Balance, if it amounts to false balance, becomes distortion.” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2007, Pg. 46) Responsible communication in the public interest can be a struggle to represent both sides fairly. A journalist must not merely give each side equal space in an article but must take care to provide an unbiased approach to informing the public, particularly on complex subjects such as First Nations’ issues. In the case of Caledonia, the court evidence shaped the story but it was the details surrounding the case that were of greater significance in providing the full picture.

Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post spoke of “the illusion of neutrality instead of ferreting out the truth,” at the fifth annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York. Huffington said much time had been wasted on the deliberation of issues in pursuit of what she refers to as a “fake neutrality” in media. The New York Times quoted her as saying that, “If you are splitting the difference over a subject like global warming, ‘you are not doing your job as a journalist." Huffington compared tempering news items in the media to a doctor telling a patient that, “You have a brain tumor, but your acne has cleared.”

Blatchford’s purported fairness in her court reporting leaves much information to be desired. Although she presents all the evidence heard in court, her columns feed further ignorance of First Nations issues and thus increase tension and a racial divide. The lack of context in her columns offers very little insight for readers.

This was also the case in New York City when racial issues were reported with a disproportionate focus. In the 1990s, tensions ran high in New York City during the trials pursuant to racial violence in Bensonhurst. In the quest for an enticing lead, media coverage quoted the most sensational opinions of those leading the race movement, which provoked further tension. The mayor at the time, David Dinkins, said, "I do not blame the media for the existence of racial and ethnic tensions in this city," but criticized the "eye-for-an-eye, quote-for-a-quote competition that often dominates discourse in this town." Dinkins urged the press "to seek out and cover those whose views may be less confrontational — even if we're not as loud, even if we don't speak in perfect sound bites, and even if our words create less controversy." (Court, 1990). Seeking the opinions of those who were peripheral but representative nonetheless would have been appropriate for balanced depth of coverage.

The New York Times provided an exemplary model with their coverage at the time. On the front of its metro section, the paper ran two articles, each elucidating one side of the debate over an ongoing boycott resulting from the racial tensions. “One of the articles explained that Korean women purposely avoid touching their customer's hands. But when they place the change on the counter, their black customers often consider the gesture rude.” The Times used its power to illustrate that both sides warranted equal merit. They later ran a story that “celebrated the energy and ethnic diversity of Brooklyn's Flatbush section.” Court says that the emergence of such even-handed reporting arises out of a sincere interest in “understanding of different racial and ethnic communities.” (Court, 1990).

To ensure responsible communication, the Poynter Institute developed the following measures of excellence:
"1) The story provides context. It should include important context of the issues that assist the readers in understanding both sides.
"2) The story embraces complexity. The writer seeks to present a multi-dimensional approach to the story rather the choosing sides that indicate the good or the bad.
"3) We hear the voices of the people. The voices of all sides should be given equal representation to provide an informed perspective for the audience. Quotes should be a value-added element to the context of the story.
"4) The story has the ring of authenticity. The story is free of generalization and its subject is “not assigned an undue leadership role by the media or by themselves.”

In the Caledonia example, Blatchford would have been well-advised to talk to the people of Six Nations - not merely those leading and involved in the protest, but the Six Nations residents who were affected by Caledonia protesters and provocateurs, who could also speak to the land claims issues. Even-handedness in reporting is central to fair and balanced reporting. As Carey put it: “We want more than the facts pleasingly arranged. We also want to know how to feel about events and what, if anything, to do about them” (Carey, 1986). Journalists have the onus of shaping the public’s thinking on political and social issues and must enlighten audiences rather than creating a greater divide.


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<http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/caledonia-landclaim/> Web. 15 Oct. 2010.

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