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5.4.04

Bias Vs. Balance

The 'Pros' Have It On Gay Marriage

On the opinion side of the fence, however, readers [of the Boston Globe] have a chronic complaint: The number of pro-gay marriage letters routinely outnumbers anti-gay marriage letters.

"Your editorial page is printing letters in a ratio of seven-to-one in favor of gay marriage according to my sampling," complained a local college professor. "Surely this is not a fair reflection of your readers' letters?"

Actually, the ratio of incoming letters is even more lopsided -- more like 40 to 1 in favor of gay marriage -- according to the two editors, Glenda Buell and Peter Accardi, who compile the daily letters for publication.

Impossible, you say? Well, I haven't eyeballed every letter myself, but my quick review convinces me that -- surprising as it is -- the Globe indeed gets many more letters supporting gay marriage than opposing it. And that leaves editors scrambling to find suitable "anti" letters to run along with the "pro" ones reflecting the Globe's editorial stance on the issue.


One of the favorite complaints of the blogosphere* is that the media substitutes a "balance" format -- in which both sides of an issue are given equal say -- for real objectivity. I agree that this is a problem. But it's important to remember that the source of the problem is not just lazy journalism. It's reinforced by the pressure that papers are under from their readers. Readers assume (in part from the example of past media coverage) that every issue has two sides with a roughly equal right to be heard. Thus, when they read a story emphasizing one point of view, they assume it must be because of bias. In most cases, a newspaper's credibility depends on being percieved to be neutral and objective in its news coverage. So the media has to placate its readers with a bit of viewpoint affirmative action, giving as much space to the climate change skeptic as to the hundreds of climatologists who disagree with him, in order to convince their readers that they aren't biased.

*I notice it more among liberals, but maybe I just don't read enough conservative blogs.

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