Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/11/balanced_journalism/

Balanced, neutral journalism is RUBBISH and that's a FACT

Not just boring but unhealthy to read

By Lewis Page

Posted in Media, 11th March 2011 12:18 GMT

New research has revealed what we here at the Register have always known to be the self-evident, hard, cold, factual truth: which is that balanced, neutral journalism is not just incredibly boring, it is also bad for readers' mental health and turns them into apathetic drones who can't be bothered to engage with the world around them.

"There are consequences to journalism that just reports what each side says," asserts Raymond Pingree, a prof at Ohio State uni. "It makes readers feel like they can’t figure out what the truth is ... this attitude may lead people to tune out politics entirely, or to be more accepting of dishonesty by politicians."

To confirm this thesis, Pingree conducted an experiment on 538 college students. The students were asked to read one of four fictional news stories about a healthcare bill being debated by the US Congress. The stories described two debates about the bill.

In one, opponents of the bill claimed that its cost would be far higher than the proponents' estimates. In the other, opponents claimed that help provided by the bill was already offered through an existing government scheme and thus that it would merely create unnecessary bureaucracy.

Two of the articles were written in proper journalism-school style, as though by reporters who had been trained to get out of the office and speak to people, or at the very least do so on the phone – thus getting original quotes and generating high-value copy.

The other two were written in a different fashion, as though by lazy hacks who had simply looked up stuff on the internet – for instance actually reading the text of the proposed bill, checking whether its provisions were indeed already on offer, etc – and then writing down whether the allegations were true or not. This sort of thing is generally frowned on among real journalists as it amounts to little more than reproducing information already published by someone else: such copy is plainly not high-value. Also, it is frequently criticised as being overly opinionated.

Having read one of the four articles, the students were surveyed on how the experience had made them feel about their chances of understanding important issues.

According to Pingree, the balanced, proper-journalism articles in which comments from both sides of the debate were offered produced feelings of nihilistic despair in the readers – they had been made to feel that they would never really know who was right or what was what, and might as well vote for a politician based on how good his hairstyle and teeth were: or simply not bother at all.

Those who had read the articles which presented information and delivered a conclusion based on it, by contrast, led the youngsters to feel that they understood the issue and might themselves usefully participate in society.

Pingree has harsh words for the school of work-the-phones, shoeleather-burning talky journalism, known as "he-said/she-said". He suggests that once upon a time things had been better, with all journalists striving to discover the truth rather than simply presenting both sides of a case and refusing to (visibly) make their minds up.

"A few decades ago, that [resolving disputes] was seen as the role of all journalists.  Journalists didn't see themselves as stenographers, but as judges, keeping the lawyers honest in the court of public opinion.  We don't see that as much anymore."

Fear not, however. We here at the Reg still regard ourselves as judges in the court of public opinion – certainly not stenographers. Most of us can't even do shorthand. We seldom bother ringing people up when we know in advance what they're going to say.

We didn't call Pingree on this one, for instance. But you can read a statement from Ohio State here, and his paper in The Journal of Communication here. ®