As societies become more polarised and the political temperature rises, editors find themselves under growing pressure from readers on the lookout for bias (that doesn’t match their own of course) and trolls looking to complain about just about anything from reasonable comment they just don’t happen to agree with to coverage of ‘the other side’ that they’d rather wasn’t there. These days, it feels like everyone has a strong opinion and the means to broadcast it, sometimes rudely, rarely subtly and often in large, shouty block capital letters.
Magazines will often reflect their editor’s personalities but not so often their politics. The titles that do are well known: all national newspapers, most current affairs magazines and those in any mass market large enough to support competing titles that can differentiate themselves by where they stand politically. Readers are drawn to titles of their choice partly or even chiefly for their political flavour. While not accepting their title’s position as biased exactly, readers aren’t shocked and astounded to see them taking a stance.
The journalists still get a lot of abuse for their views. I once heard a social media consultant address a journalism conference with wonder at how they take the worst abuse she’d seen just about anywhere online. Yet for editors to be public about their politics is the exception rather than the rule. When it feels that everyone else has a platform for their politics it is ironic that most editors are left feeling they have a platform but no voice.
The vast majority of publications, from local newspapers to trade and professional magazines like the one I edit, have very mixed constituencies. Their audiences are defined by their location, vocation or even their passion but they are likely to encompass a wide political spectrum. This matters because so much of what these titles cover is political – especially the more interesting part - and is getting more so.
In my magazine’s area, international politics affects tariffs, supply chains and markets. Privacy issues affect technology – how it is made as well as how it is used. Climate change affects everything from recycling and product design to vehicle propulsion, the energy mix and just about every corporate strategy and government. Our latest issue looks at what Brexit will mean for skills shortages, collaborative R&D and state aid.
Yet editors have to remain as neutral as they can. Magazines can and should contain a variety of views, within reason, without nailing their political colours to the mast. Local paper journalists were traditionally discouraged form joining political parties. Everyone has their opinions, values and prejudices of course. No one is purely neutral but editors should try. Making the effort is important for maintaining balance and fairness. That doesn’t mean every view is equally valid and has to be given a platform.
It’s more important than ever for editors to stand back and take a balanced, rational and fact-checked view.
Journalism historian Daniel C Hallin divided coverage of the Vietnam war into three spheres. The sphere of consensus contains topics on which just about everyone agrees – it’s the motherhood and apple pie area – and journalists needn’t feel obliged to seek other views for balance. The sphere of legitimate controversy covers areas of mainstream debate, in which journalists can aim for balance in reporting. The sphere of deviance is the more fringe, wild out-there stuff that journalists don’t have to treat too seriously.
We still get complaints from climate sceptics for even mentioning global warming, but the vast majority of scientists consider it a fact and a threat. The president of the US may not agree, as may a few of our readers, but the experts tend to. So, I now edit with the assumption that it is in the consensus sphere. I’m always open to new ideas and new evidence, but giving a platform to a fringe minority just for balance leads to the ‘false equivalence’ of fringe commentators being given the same prominence as mainstream experts.
The second sphere is where much of our coverage is but it is growing as topics move between spheres. The sphere of consensus isn’t as much of a consensus as it was. Increasingly, the sphere of deviance is pushing topics from the sphere of consensus back into the sphere of controversy, putting editors under more pressure.
In an age of culture wars and increasing polarisation, it’s more important than ever for editors to stand back and take a balanced, rational and fact-checked view. This idea of political neutrality in journalism is a traditional one but it’s looking quite old-fashioned these days. The proliferation of powerful media platforms, web traffic fuelled by outrage and extremism, the rise of campaigning journalism and just about every other trend in modern media points the other way.
That makes it all the harder to maintain an editor’s neutrality because that obligation extends well beyond our publications. I have strong views about issues from low traffic neighbourhoods to the US election but I keep them out of public. And an editor can end up with less of a voice than the man in the street. I am not complaining; we have a duty to stay neutral. It would just be nice to have my voice back one day.
Giving a platform to a fringe minority just for balance leads to a ‘false equivalence’.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.