In the late 1970s, as a correspondent for NBC News, I was sent to Akron, Ohio to cover a story about a proposed ordinance on abortion.
A woman who is planning an abortion must notify in advance either her husband or boyfriend or her parents, depending on her age and marital status.
She must be made to understand that a fetus has human features.
She must be made to understand that aborting it might cause psychological problems for her.
It was a controversial subject then, just as a similar ordinance would be today, and before I headed for the airport, an NBC News producer took me aside and cautioned me, in so many words, to be fair and balanced.
I’ll do my best, I said.
Let me give you a pointer, he said. After you finish your shooting, after you get the protesters and the prayer vigils and the city council meeting, and after you do your interviews with people on both sides of the issue and start putting your piece together, take out your stopwatch.
What for? I asked.
Time the sound bites, he said. Then, when you edit the story, make sure that the total time of the bites in favor of the ordinance is as close as possible to the total time of the bites against it.
I thought about that for a minute or so. Well, I said, I suppose that would be fair, but it’s also pretty simple-minded, don’t you think?
Listen, Eric, the producer replied. You’re doing a TV report, not a book-length essay. You can’t get into all the nuances and ramifications. What you can do is give each side a hearing, and leave the rest up to the viewers. Fair and simple-minded might not be the best combination in the world, but it’s better than unfair. When thoroughness isn’t possible, settle for balance.
If I remember correctly, my pro-ordinance sound bites were within two seconds or my anti-ordinance sound bites.
I’ve thought of my experience in Akron in recent days because of all the controversy about coverage of the war’s aftermath in Iraq. It is possible for journalists to do stories about the deaths of American soldiers and make the situation seem bleak. It is possible for journalists to do stories about schools being rebuilt and make the situation seem hopeful. What does not seem possible is for a single report, or even a single news program, to present both sides of the issue, the gloomy and the hopeful, which they should do in measures as equal as possible.
I do not mean to suggest by this that an American soldier’s death and an Iraqi classroom’s reconstruction are stories of the same magnitude; I find the former far more of a tragedy than the latter is a triumph.
But I also believe that if both stories were presented in roughly equal amounts of time, viewers could decide for themselves about the costs of our ongoing struggle. They could weigh the violence against the rebuilding and make up their own minds.
Recently, Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., a Vietnam veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, paid a visit to Iraq. He noted, in so many words, that something good is happening every day and something bad is happening every day. But he fears that American journalists are overemphasizing the bad; he refers to “the harm done by our media. I’m afraid it is killing our troops.” He goes on: “The falsely bleak picture weakens our national resolve, discourages Iraqi cooperation and emboldens our enemy.”
Perhaps he overstates the case. Perhaps not. But if ever there were a time for fairness in reporting, it is now; if ever there were a place, it is Iraq.
It might be a good idea to take out the stopwatches again.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.