Fairness Index

 

On July 6 last year, police alerted local media to a mass arrest of a group of immigrants suspected of poaching abalone. Channels 5 and 7 showed the faces of the people as they were rousted from their apartments. Law enforcement officials were quoted about the crime these individuals were suspected of committing, but the alleged poachers were not interviewed, nor did anyone give their side.

 

Channel 2 also recorded the mass arrests, but its videographer was careful to shoot the suspects so they could not be identified. As police hustled the men to paddy wagons, the suspects were videotaped from the side and rear. Otherwise, the stories were highly similar.

 

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics enjoins journalists to “diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”  By purposely omitting the identities of the suspects, Channel 2 avoided damaging anyone’s reputation.

 

The fairness index measures how fully reporters provided more than one side of a controversy¾whether an allegation of mis- or malfeasance, a political race, or an issue. 

 

 

How the index was constructed

 

This measures the percentage of time/space consumed by controversial stories in which more than one side is given the opportunity to make its case (even if that opportunity is rejected). Stories in which a single perspective is acceptable are excluded from the analysis. Such stories include uncontested decisions of boards and other groups, authoritative accounts of events such as fires, accidents, and the weather. Also excluded from analysis are stories in which an opposing view would not be available, e.g., a not-yet-apprehended criminal suspect. Finally, opinions offered by columnists who are giving their own opinions about an event or issue are not counted.

 

The fairest stories offer competing sides the same opportunities for comment. If one side is quoted directly, so are the others if they choose (and can be reached for comment). If one side is on air, so are the others (unless there is some obvious reason why they cannot be.) Neither time nor space must be equal, however. (We seek objectivity of method, but not of result).

 

Less fair are stories in which all sides are represented, but not given equal opportunity to respond. Unfair stories don’t give all obvious sides a chance to comment.

 

Fairness grades are based on the percentage of news time or space in stories judged completely fair plus one-half the time or space in stories judged partly fair. Grades range from A, 85% or above to F, less than 55%. Minus and plus grades are assigned at 3 point intervals, i.e., 82-84=A-; 79-81=B+, etc.