Chapter 57: Fairness

Chapter 57: Fairness

In this chapter, we discuss the reasons for fairness in reporting. We advise on ways of maintaining fairness throughout news gathering and news writing. We discuss the need for special care in writing comment columns, in campaigning journalism and in reporting elections and court cases.


There are three basic qualities which should guide the work of a good journalist - it must be fast, fair and accurate:

Speed comes from increasing knowledge, confidence and experience.

Accuracy comes from constant attention to details and from hard work in finding, checking and re-checking details.

Fairness is the hardest to define, but it has a lot to do with avoiding bias, treating people equally and allowing people to have equal chances to do things or express themselves.

What is fairness?

Even if you are not able to put it into words, you may have a natural understanding of fairness if you care about other people and are sensitive to their needs.

Fairness is made up of two parts: Objectivity and impartiality.

Objectivity means is not forcing your own personal opinions on the news you are reporting. The opposite of objectivity is subjectivity, which means putting your own feelings and personal opinions in the news you report.

Many people argue that objectivity is unachievable, that journalists are human beings and so will never manage to separate entirely their personal feelings from their professional practice. However, many people in their work and professions – such as judges, doctors and election officials - are expected to practise objectivity; so too should journalists.

And even when pure objectivity may not be achievable, it is no less important for that. Objectivity is like the harbour lights for a sailor or the landing lights for a pilot – to be aimed for and to guide us safely home.

If you strive to be objective in all your work, you will achieve it more often.

Impartiality means not taking sides on an issue where there is a dispute. Impartiality also includes presenting all sides of an argument fairly, what we call balance.

Even if you have strong feelings about an issue, you must not use the news to put over your own arguments; you must not try to give extra time or better coverage to people you agree with and less time or worse coverage to those you disagree with.

For the good journalist, objectivity and impartiality are two sides of the same coin. If you can be objective and control your personal feelings on an issue, you can also be even-handed in your treatment of all sides.

Although impartiality or bias can enter all areas of journalism, the greatest dangers lie in reporting politics, industrial disputes, religion, race and sport. Any area in which people have very strong feelings can lead to conflict and to bias in reporting the issue.

The same general principles which govern objectivity can also help you to be impartial. Forget your personal preferences while working on a story, stand back from it and try to look at the issues through the eyes of people both for and against. That may not change your personal opinion that something is wrong, but it will help you to be fair.

If you do believe very strongly in a particular cause, you must develop two personalities - the You-at-Home and the You-at-Work - and keep them separate. Many journalists in democratic countries support one political party or another. They may vote for a party or even be a member. But to keep a reputation as an unbiased journalist, they should not allow their party loyalty to influence their news judgment. The party supporter must be kept to the You-at-Home; the objective, impartial journalist is the You-at-Work.

Being objective is only part of the battle against bias. The other part involves recognising when one side in a dispute is applying unfair pressure to get their case in the news (or another side is not getting its fair share of coverage). This can be obvious and easy to correct, or more subtle and much harder to put right.

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Practising fairness

There are several ways you can allow personal bias to destroy objectivity and impartiality in the way you handle news. You should be aware of the dangers at each stage of the process of news production, from the first decision to cover a story through to its presentation on a page or in a bulletin.

Selection of news

Busy newsrooms are constantly having to make decisions about which stories to cover and which to ignore. The selection of stories can introduce a very basic bias if it is not done objectively. Simply because you disagree with a government, a group or an individual does not mean that you can suppress all stories which show the good side of them and cover only those which show them unfavourably. You should be even-handed. This is particularly important at such times as election campaigns.

Your decisions on which stories to cover should be made on the principles which govern what makes news. News should be new, unusual, interesting, significant and about people.

The exact balance of these criteria may vary depending on your audience. If you work for a scientific magazine, you may select different stories to a journalist who works in the newsroom of a pop music radio station. You must develop an accurate understanding of what is news to your audience, then be fair and consistent in the selection of every story.

Choice of sources

Even if you have to overcome a personal prejudice and decide to cover a story you find disagreeable, you must still take care that you are fair in your choice of sources of information. It is not fair to choose to interview an attractive personality for a cause you support but an unattractive or muddled person for a cause you oppose.

There is also the danger that, if you are asked to cover a story you dislike doing, you will fail to put enough energy into finding interviewees and arranging to talk to them. For example, someone you dislike may not want to talk to you. You must not say: "Oh well, let's forget him." You should try your hardest to get an interview or at least a comment.

If you want to be a good journalist, you should put your best effort into every story. That way you produce a good product and help objectivity.

"No comment"

In some cases people will be unwilling or unable to give an interview. Maybe they are just too busy, maybe they hate the sound of their own voice. Of course, you should try your very best to convince them they should do the interview, but if that fails you should not say: "Ah well, they had their chance and they missed it. I'll just give the other side."

You should still try for balance, even if it means finding someone else to speak for them or writing about their previous position on the issue. (Be careful, though, that your story makes clear that this is not a response to the present issue.)

Many journalists take the easy way out by writing: "Mr Rahman was not available for comment." They occasionally write: "Mr Rahman refused to comment", but this is unfair because it implies that everyone has a duty to speak to reporters. You can only "refuse" if someone is ordering you to do something. If you ask Mr Rahman for a comment and he will not give one, you should write: "Mr Rahman declined to comment." This tells your audience that you offered Mr Rahman the chance to comment, but he did not take it.

Always try to get some comment because using phrases like "declined to comment" shows that you are unable to present a fair and balanced report. If this happens too often, your reputation as a fair and honest reporter will suffer. But remember this: To maintain balance, you do not need to present both sides of an argument in one story, even though it is preferable. Balance will be achieved if you give an opposing view in the follow-up story.

Interviewing techniques

Do not abandon objectivity when you conduct the interview. It may be difficult to interview someone who stands for something you oppose or who has done something you dislike, but you must continue to be fair and accurate.

For example, if you are interviewing a drug addict or a thief, remember you are not there as a policeman or prosecutor. Do not demand answers in an aggressive tone. Keep your temper. The golden rule of all interviewing is to be polite but persistent.

Questions should be fair and you must take as much care when taking notes or recording as for any interview. If accusations have been made against the interviewee, do not make them sound like your accusations. Instead of saying: "You ran away from your responsibilities, didn't you?" you should say: "Critics say that you ran away from your responsibilities. Did you?" The outcome is the same, only the tone is fairer.

This advice applies particularly to broadcast journalists, some of whom like to ask aggressive questions for dramatic effect - the so-called tough interviewer. If that is your style, you must use it with everyone, not just the people you dislike.

Selecting material

Having conducted your interviews, you now have to put your material together into a story. Whether working for newspapers, magazines, radio or television, you have to select which facts and quotes to include and which to leave out. You will probably write your story in the usual inverted pyramid, with the most important things at the start.

Here again, you must be fair in choosing material. There are usually two sides to every argument, so do not be one-sided in choosing what facts to include or which words to quote. If your interviewee has said: "I support the present government, but with some serious reservations", it would be wrong to use only the quote: "I support the present government." Be fair and quote accurately, making sure that the meaning of each comment is put in context with what else is being said.

If the person you have interviewed stressed the importance of one particular aspect, do not omit it simply because you disagree with what was said. You should judge each comment independently under the criteria for what is news. That way you maintain objectivity.


The language you use to write your story is very important. It is quite easy to change the whole of a sentence by adding one or two words loaded with a particular meaning. For example, your interviewee might have made some remarks quite forcefully. It would be wrong to describe them as "firm" simply because you liked him, or "harsh" because you did not.

Stick to facts. If he moved his finger as he made certain remarks, you can mention it but remember that there is a lot of difference between such words as "waved" (which some people do with their fingers naturally while speaking), "wagged" (which people usually do while telling someone off) and "jabbed" (which is used to make a forceful point or accusation). In fact, it is better to keep such descriptions out of news stories, although they can be used when writing features to show something about the person involved.

Any words you use instead of the verb "said" when attributing facts and opinions can add a bias to your reporting. Journalists often like to find alternatives for the word "said", because they think that repetition becomes boring. If you do use alternatives, you must recognise that some imply that you believe the person quoted while others imply that you do not believe them.

See the table below. The left column is words which imply disbelief, the right column words suggest belief, while the centre are reasonably neutral:


spoke of

announced that
pointed out
emphasised that

Many journalists use a thesaurus to find alternative words to enliven their copy. A thesaurus should only be used if you have a very good understanding of the language. It is much better to use a dictionary to find the exact meaning of a word. If you use clear and simple language and leave out as many adjectives and adverbs as possible, you will limit the chance of bias entering into your copy.

Once again, if your interviewee accuses someone, you must make it clear that they are the interviewee's words, not your own. For example, if he says that the regime in Tilapia is brutal, attribute the remark to him, either in reported speech or in a quote. Do not allow it to be seen as your own comment. Remember, one man's regime is another man's government. One man's cabinet is another man's junta.

There are also good legal reasons for choosing your words carefully. In most countries you can be prosecuted for making false statements about someone which causes them harm. (For more details, see Chapter 69: Defamation - what you can't do.)

You should not blemish a person's name without a special reason, even though what you say is factually correct. There is no need to call a person who kills his daughter "a beast". If he has not been tried it is for the courts to decide his guilt or innocence. If he has been found guilty, your story will be stronger if you carefully and accurately record the facts without gory details and personal judgments. It will also keep your reputation as an objective journalist.

Compare the following and see which is both more objective and more powerful:

At four o'clock on Christmas morning, Manuel Ortez walked quietly into his baby daughter's room and plunged a carving knife five times through the heart of the sleeping child.      

In the heavy dark of Christmas morning the fiendish beast Manuel Ortez slunk into his innocent daughter's room and, in a bloody frenzy, hacked the child to death with a gleaming knife.


There is danger of introducing bias in the tenses which you use when writing. When you describe what is happening or what has happened, it is natural to use present or past tenses. However, when you use the future tense to predict what you think may happen, remember that this is speculation. It may be well-informed and extremely accurate speculation, but it is not yet a fact.

It is safer to use words like "may" and "is expected to" when writing about events yet to come. If someone says they will do something, quote them as making the promise, do not let it seem that the prediction is yours. For example:

The Finance Minister says he will reduce income tax before the end of the year.  

The Finance Minister will reduce income tax before the end of the year.  

Placing the story

If you are a sub-editor in a newsroom, you should be fair where you place a story in the paper or bulletin. Do not let personal feelings interfere with your news judgment. Just because you are strongly opposed to whale hunting, you cannot choose to lead with that and put the story about the Prime Minister's assassination further down if they are both new. There is no excuse for hiding a story down the page or bulletin simply because you do not like what is said.

Your readers or listeners may disagree with you over the order in which you rank stories because they also have special likes and dislikes. But if you are fair and follow the guidelines of news value, you will be able to defend your news judgment against all sides.

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Comment columns

There are opportunities in the media for journalists to give their personal opinions - in writing reviews and in the commentary columns of newspapers and magazines. Journalists usually write under their own name or use a pseudonym (a made-up name). A special column called the editorial or leader column is where the paper gives its own opinion on specific topics such as a new foreign policy or a harsh prison sentence.

Any commentary column should clearly show that the statements are the personal opinions of the columnist or the opinion of the newspaper itself. This is normally shown by placing the column in a regular slot on a specific page. The title of the column or the inclusion of the author's by-line usually indicate that the column is that person's own comments. Some newspapers even use a small block saying "Comment" at the top of such columns.

Unfortunately, many journalists allow their own comments to spill over into genuine news reports. Well-educated readers can tell where fact ends and personal opinion begins, but less educated readers can be confused.

For a more detailed discussion, see Chapter 50: Features and Chapter 52: Reviewing.

Commentary on radio or television

There is really no place in radio or television for newspaper-style commentary columns (for reasons which we discussed in Chapter 56: Facts and opinion). If you think it will help your listeners to understand an issue by giving them some expert comments, it is better to bring in experts rather than do it yourself. This is best done in an interview in a news or current affairs program. If a politician wants to express an opinion on an issue which the newsroom does not regard as newsworthy, they should apply to buy air time for a party political broadcast, if these are allowed.

Occasionally an editor will ask people like foreign correspondents or specialist reporters to give an analysis of an event. Such segments should be kept factual and free of personal bias.

Radio and television stations may also allow their journalists to express personal opinions in reviews, perhaps reviewing a film on an arts program or judging a recipe on a food program. Such reviews should be kept separate from news bulletins and should be clearly identified as the personal views of the journalist concerned.

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Campaigning journalism

Sometimes journalists come across things which affect them emotionally. These can be injustices, cases of cruelty or simply people who need the help of the media. In such circumstances journalists take one side of an issue and fight for that side. For example, journalists have campaigned against bad prison conditions, against political oppression or against street crime. Clearly they are not being totally objective, and in such cases the reader or listener understands why.

However, campaigning for a cause should not stop you attempting to be as objective as possible in your treatment of a story. You should still prefer facts to opinions and give people a chance to answer any allegations made against them. If the situation is really as bad as you believe it is, simply giving people the facts will be enough to convince them. Let your audience judge the rights and wrongs of the issue.

The purpose of campaigning journalism is to make other people feel deeply about something, just as you do. The best way to do this is to ask yourself what made you feel the way you do: what did you see or hear which convinced you? Whatever it was, that is what you should present to your readers or listeners, so that they might have the opportunity to feel about the issue, just as you do. If you want somebody to know what it is like to have a pin stuck in them it is a waste of time standing next to them crying in pain. It is much more effective to stick a pin in them! Similarly, saying how deeply you feel about injustice will not convince your listeners; put the injustice in front of them to see for themselves.

Campaigns often take a long time and journalists can become so involved in them that they lose sight of the original issue. It is a good idea occasionally to stand back from the issue and assess objectively. Ask yourself: "Am I still being fair and accurate? Have I exaggerated my case?"

The golden rule about objectivity is to be honest about yourself. If you recognise personal prejudice in your work, fight against it. At the end of the day, your reputation as a journalist who can be trusted is at stake.

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Journalists rely on contacts to tell them what is happening or give them hints on stories which might be worth covering. Contacts can range from an official within the government to the boy who keeps his eyes open for stories while selling newspapers.

Some contacts will tell you things simply because they like you or they like the idea of being involved in the media in a small way. They are not part of the story and have no particular interest in giving you one side against another.

Others, however, will tell you things because they want the news covered in a certain way. These people can be politicians who expose an opponent's wrong-doing to score political points; company public relations officers who want to sell a particular product; activists who want to highlight what they see as an injustice; a criminal who wants to get even with a corrupt policeman by "telling all". The list is endless. They all have one thing in common - they are not interested in balance, they will not help you to give the other side of the story. You can use such contacts to give you story ideas, but must go to other sources as well for balance.

Public relations

It is easy to be drawn into taking the side of contacts, for all sorts of reasons. Businesses, governments, politicians and police forces in particular have recognised the value of employing special people to present their case to the media and the public. Whether they are called public relations executives or press officers, they still owe loyalty to the person who pays them. They are not there to help the media, they are there to protect and promote their employers.

The clever public relations officer or PR will be very pleasant to deal with. He or she will always try to be available to journalists, even at home. They will call you by your first name and share jokes with you. They will arrange interviews for you and issue press releases to keep you informed. They will, in effect, do everything they possibly can to make your job easier and save you digging for a story. They know that journalists who dig often find more than they were originally looking for.

They also recognise a basic fact of human nature, that if journalists can get news more easily from one side than the other they will favour that side over the other, either consciously or subconsciously. It is difficult for young journalists to have a very friendly chat with a helpful PR then write something critical about his company or organisation. How much easier it is to take their side against the opponent who angrily accuses you of trying to stir up trouble then slams the telephone down!

As well as finding the good PR more pleasant to deal with, journalists may also find them better informed and better communicators. Many companies, political parties or pressure groups now either employ professional journalists as public relations officers or send their PRs on special courses to learn how to handle the media.

So beware of the temptations offered by public relations officers. It is much easier today for a busy reporter to ask the PR manager of a shipping line to get a comment from his chairman than it is to go out and track down the opposing union official who also works full time "down on the dockside somewhere". To be a good journalist you must accept that some tasks are easy, some are difficult. Do not allocate the same amount of time to getting each side of the story - aim for the same level of achievement.

Conflicting news sources

Whenever you are getting news from a number of independent sources, whether they are wire services, contacts or witnesses, you may find conflicting information. In some cases these may be small variations, in others major differences.

For example, you may have been given two different days when strike action is due to start. By checking back, double checking and cross checking sources, it may be possible to find where the difference lies and deal with it easily. Often a phone call is all that is needed.

In other cases, where your access to information is limited, you may never be able to find out exactly who is correct. In such cases you should attribute the facts in doubt to the individuals, groups, companies, organisations or governments which gave them. For example, if one army claims to have fired three missiles and their enemy says they only fired two, quote both sides and let the reader or listener judge from experience who to believe. If you are still unhappy about that solution in really controversial areas, leave out the details in question.

Sometimes you may receive conflicting details from two usually-reliable news agencies. For example, Reuters may say that 1,000 people have been killed while Associated Press says 2,000. If you cannot see an obvious reason for the different figures (such as the AP story being more up-to-date than Reuters), contact the agencies themselves, perhaps by telex. If you cannot determine which is correct, you may have to quote both of them - as long as you are sure that this will not confuse your audience. You must, of course, clarify the situation as soon as possible. The alternative is to wait until the situation is clearer before running the story.

Whenever there is conflict between two reports from the same agency, look for reasons why (such as one report being more up-to-date or from a bureau nearer to the event). Again, if you cannot find an obvious reason, contact the nearest branch of the agency for an explanation.

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As a journalist, you must never accept a favour or a gift if you suspect that it is being used as a bribe. They can quite easily affect your credibility as a journalist.

If you accept any gift on the understanding that you will write favourably about the donor - whether they offer a carton of beer, a car or a trip abroad - you have said that there is a price on your honesty as a journalist. You can be bought. You are no different from the corrupt policeman who publicly defends the law but privately commits crimes.

Even the smallest gift or favour destroys your credibility as a fair journalist. By breaking down your protection of honesty, it also makes it easier to accept the next bribe, then the next.

Even if the gift does not make you act any differently, you might find it difficult to convince other people of this. The donor might also try to blackmail you over the issue to get your support.

If someone offers you anything free, such as a sample of their product or a free holiday to try their hotel or airline, you should tell the news editor or director of news immediately. They will then decide whether or not you can accept it. It might be possible to accept it, but only on condition that everyone involved knows that it will not influence your judgment. If the car you test drive is bad value, you will say so. If the airline is unpunctual, dirty and overcrowded, you will write that too. Very few public relations officers would offer you a direct bribe, but they might wrap it up in an innocent-looking offer. (See Chapter 58: Pressures on journalists.)

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You must be especially careful about being unbiased during elections. What you write could alter the outcome.

It is the journalist's duty in a democratic society to keep the people well informed of the choices available to them at election time. You should report who the candidates are, what their policies are and what are the main issues of the campaign. You should also tell people what is happening in the campaign generally, who is saying what, where and to whom. Only if the electors are well informed can they make wise decisions about voting.

Journalists usually have plenty of material at election times. The politicians and their parties make sure that the media are told about what they are doing and saying. Many politicians and parties now employ press officers to feed the media information which shows the candidate or party in a good light.

Poorer politicians and smaller parties may not be able to employ specialists and have to do such work themselves. An independent media should make sure that no-one gets an unfair advantage because they have more money to spend on campaigning.

Often the best way of ensuring fairness and balance is to set guidelines at the start of the election on how the candidates and parties will be treated.

Some newspapers and broadcasting stations try to give each a fair share of publicity by counting the number of column centimetres or amount of air time each one gets. This would only include stories which can be seen as campaigning. For example, you could count stories about campaign trips, appearances, speeches, policy statements, predictions about polling and attacks on opponents. You would not count hard news stories about the candidates, such as an appearance in court on a driving charge. Because such hard news stories are usually bad for the person concerned, one cannot argue that they are helping his or her campaign.

This approach has a number of variations, such as allowing space in proportion to the size of parties or number of candidates they are fielding. Thus in a situation where there are two major parties and one minor party and a few independents, the paper or station may decide to allow the major parties 35 percent of the election coverage each, the minor party would get 20 percent, and the independents would get 10 percent divided equally between them.

In practice, this should not mean censoring news, simply keeping a daily or weekly check on how much the parties and candidates get and adjusting them to get a balance over a period of time.

Your country may have laws governing how much time or space you must give each candidate or party to maintain balance. In many countries, broadcasting laws state that balance must be maintained and records kept throughout the campaign period. You must check what the law says in your country.

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Reporting court cases

It is especially important to be fair when reporting court cases. The whole point of a court case is for the law to decide guilt or innocence. It is not your job to take sides and either condemn or clear someone in print or over the airwaves.

Not only is it very unfair and undermines the impartiality of the legal system, it is often against the law. If a court thinks that you are trying to do its work for it, you may be prosecuted for contempt.

In some countries, such as the United States, journalists can make all kinds of comments about current legal proceedings. This is because the American Constitution has to balance the individual's right to a fair trial against the First Amendment protecting free speech. In countries which have based their laws on the English legal system, the balance is in favour of a fair trial; free speech has to be limited to protect the individual's right to a fair trial. The judge or jury must not be influenced by what they read or hear on the news (see Chapter 68: Contempt).

All reports of court cases should be fair and accurate giving time and space to both prosecution and defence. Any comments on the case must wait until the case is over.

(For a more detailed discussion on balance in reporting court cases, see Chapter 64: The rules of court reporting.)

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Public displays of support

It is often difficult for journalists not to get involved in some issues. Your everyday work brings you into contact with injustices and cruelties of all sorts. Some journalists feel the need to do something, not only to write about it. There are also others who become journalists because they support a particular cause. Although they may try hard to be objective and impartial at work, they may continue to be a member of a political party, organisation or pressure group in their free time.

If you take sides on any issue, as a journalist it is not wise to show the fact. Opponents may use it as a weapon to attack your reporting, even though you feel that you are being entirely objective.

So avoid wearing T-shirts or badges which show your support for a particular group. Certainly never wear them at work or when conducting an interview. Even the smallest badge or sticker can lead people to think that you are biased. For example, a tiny anti-nuclear badge will be noticed if you are sent to interview a visiting admiral of the United States Navy.

As long as you are a reporter, you should avoid taking a leading role in public demonstrations, speeches or rallies. You should also avoid taking a public role in any controversial organisation. For example, being a Scout or Guide leader is acceptable, but giving a speech supporting a political candidate is dangerous.

Once you are publicly seen to be taking sides, you will never convince people again that you are impartial, even though professionally you may be.a tiny antinuclear badge


Reporting should be objective and impartial

Be fair in your:

  • selection of news
  • choice of sources and interviewing technique
  • news writing
  • use of the story

Avoid open displays of support for one side in a conflict

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>>go to next chapter

Index to Chapter 57
  1. What is fairness?
  2. Practising fairness
  3. Comment columns
  4. Campaigning journalism
  5. Contacts
  6. Favours
  7. Elections
  8. Reporting court cases
  9. Public displays of support
  10. To summarise
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