Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

Posted September 22, 2003

Measuring Fairness

On May 27, KRON Channel 4 aired a report on the 6 p.m. news telling the story of unrest at a Memorial Day festival in an Oakland park.

The event got unruly, two named police officers standing in front of headquarters declared on camera, because the people whom they were trying to arrest didn’t respect authority. After more than two minutes of the police description of a “sideshow,” an unidentified man was given two seconds to say merely, “There was no sideshow going on.”

Obviously, the perspective of the police was not the only one available, but the station judged that two seconds of anonymous response was enough. There were thousands of people at the festival, as was evident from video from that night. Their views might have enriched the story, or possibly even shed light on tensions the Oakland police are experiencing with the community.

Our study turned up dozens of examples of unfair or one-sided reporting between January and July. That includes many named criminal suspects who were given no chance to respond to the charges against them.

One example: On May 9, KGO Channel 7 ran a report on a Sean Viehweg, suspected of killing his high school friend 13 years ago. The reporter concluded that Viehweg gave himsef up to authorities because he “may be tired of running.” A police lieutenant said: “It seemed to me that his past had caught up with him, and it was time, and that he needed to — he needed to start the healing process for what occurred.”

The report strongly suggested Viehweg was guilty. Yet it only quoted his accusers — there was no response from him, his lawyer, his family or anyone else who could speak on his behalf.
That might make for more compelling television, but it overlooks the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which enjoins journalists to “diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”

We asked our advisory board of local journalists whether it was practical to seek comment from those recently arrested. Eight of nine said the attempt should be made. As Raul Ramirez, news director at KQED explained: “The fact is that journalists who make an effort to get ‘the other side’ under those circumstances often get a curt ‘no comment.’ But, occasionally, they are rewarded with insights and angles that make their stories richer and, certainly, better balanced.”

On television, stories in which one side in a controversy or someone accused of malfeasance or neglect was not given a chance to respond took up a troubling 31% of airtime. In another 11%, those subjects were allowed to respond, but unequally. Compare that with newspapers: Only 8% were graded as blatantly unfair. In another 11%, sides were provided unequal opportunity to respond.

Jaxon Van Derbeken of the San Francisco Chronicle provided an example of going the extra mile for fairness. In his March 27 story, “Plot against police brass, lawyers say,” Mr. Van Derbeken sought comment from all six officers accused of conspiring in a cover-up.

Fairness Index

How we constructed the measure

We added up the percentage of time or space consumed by controversial stories in which more than one side was given the opportunity to make its case (even if that opportunity was rejected).

Stories without controversy or allegations of wrongdoing were excluded from the analysis, as were those produced outside the local newsroom. Also excluded were stories in which an opposing view would not be available, e.g., a not-yet-apprehended criminal suspect. Finally, opinions offered by columnists about an event or issue were not counted; journalism ethics codes permit them wider berth.

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. One side may be on camera or directly quoted while a reporter paraphrases the other side’s argument. 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 for 85% or above; B+ for 80-84%; B for 75-79%, … to F, for less than 55%.

News Directors Respond

Ed Chapuis, news director at KTVU Channel 2 responded: "Fairness, localism, civic contributions, enterprise; these are all values that KTVU holds in high regard. It is a shame that your study overlooks KTVU's efforts in these areas."

Jim Sanders, vice president for news at KNTV Channel 11 said local residents' trust in the station speaks louder than an academic evaluation. "NBC 11 has been fortunate in making the grade with those discerning Bay Area viewers — those who give the grades that really matter."

KGO Channel 7 News Director Kevin Keeshan replied: "I was happy to see we scored high in fairness. We take pride in that.”

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