As the leaders of more than 180 countries convened in Poznan, Poland, for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, we turned our attention to Global Warming for last week's featured topic. Many of the week's stories centered on how the incoming Obama Administration could alter how the United States responds to climate change in the international arena. Others discussed ongoing efforts to address the issue on the local and state level. And among our top rated were several stories that examined how nations will continue to cut carbon emissions in the face of worldwide economic downturn.
Our friends at the Council on Foreign Relations partnered with us on this topic, and we kicked off our week with a feature of their Climate Change Crisis Guide, an extensive multimedia presentation published this fall on their website.
Here's a list of last week's top news and opinion on global warming:
Ancient skills 'could reverse global warming' - The Independent
As more eat meat, a bid to cut emissions - New York Times
Carbon trading: environmental godsend or giant shell game? - Discover Magazine
James L. Jones' energy views worry some environmentalists - Los Angeles Times
Rain forests to headline at Poznon - Green Grok
Earth to Washington - Mother Jones
The new greens like it big - Newsweek
Global warming: too close to home - Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The 23-billion-ton gorilla at the climate talks - Green Grok
The free markets will never tackle climate change effectively - The Guardian
Climate change from Poland to the poles - NPR
Balance and fairness: a debate
As is the case in many professional and academic circles, global warming proved a controversial issue for NewsTrust members as well. The topic helped spark a week-long debate within our Editors group over the difference between the journalistic principles of balance and fairness.
Our Editors group consists of 17 volunteer editors and advisors and three staff members who correspond to make some of the core decisions at NewsTrust -- their discussion of balance and fairness last week is critical in honing our review tools and represents a key aspect of how we rate the news. Several questions took center-stage: Are balance and fairness identical? Do they complement each other? Or can they work against one another? Can a piece be fair but not balanced, or balanced but not fair? How does sourcing come into play? We culled some thoughtful perspectives on this issue.
Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern journalism professor and media critic, argued the two principles come into conflict. "I'm someone who believes that balance often works *against* fairness," he said. "The idea that balance equals fairness has turned more than one so-called objective journalist into a stenographer of disingenuous spin and worse." In Dan's view, balance and fairness require negotiation in a piece of journalism. For example, if a reporter quotes all sides of a story in the name of "balance," irrespective of the facts involved, it is probably "unfair."
Kaizar Campwala, NewsTrust Associate Editor, held the opposite was often true -- that a story may not be fair if it's not balanced. "By only using sources critical of the verdict (balance)," he said, referencing this trial analysis from the Christian Science Monitor, "the author appears to be taking sides in the story (fairness)."
Walter Cox, a NewsTrust host and expert on Soviet Studies, differed with both Kaizar and Dan, and used what he found to be one-sidedness in the global warming debate to illustrate his point. "What I have observed is that 'fair' in the current media context often amounts to a virtual blackballing of legitimate dissenting opinion," he said, crying foul on the lack of global warming skeptics featured in news coverage. Global warming coverage, he argued, lacked balance and was only "fair" in that it captured the prevailing viewpoint on the issue.
Wrapping up the discussion Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, maintained that fairness and balance are two distinct concepts that often enhance each other in quality journalism. He offered this explanation:
Balance does means gathering sufficient facts to understand a news topic as objectively as possible ... Imagine a puzzle with each piece a fact. The more facts, the more likely our deduction will be correct, concerning what the mosaic means or depicts, with the proviso that some of the puzzle pieces will be held from view so that we cannot apply inductive reasoning. ... Fairness is deciding what facts from that balanced picture should be omitted from a report because they do not help complete the picture or somehow detract from it.
Without a doubt, other experts and practitioners of journalism butt heads on the definitions of balance and fairness in the same manner as our editors. But a survey of several professional codes of ethics shows some consensus among news organizations on how to separate the two. Fairness, as explained by Journalism.org, Society of Professional Journalists, Center for Citizen Media and others, is as much a method of good journalism as it is a principle. Fairness begins with a reporter's approach to an issue and translates into his or her construction of the story. Balance is more concrete, dealing with the extent to which the author cited key parties and sought diverse viewpoints to support the information in a story. We try to capture these ideas in our Reviewer FAQ (read how we define balance and fairness on our site).
We extend a special thanks to all our editors for initiating and weighing in on this fascinating debate. Your thoughtful comments and professional input are invaluable as we continue with this experiment in journalism.
This week: India
This week's featured topic is India and the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. What are their repercussions on Indian politics? How will this affect India's relations with its nuclear rival Pakistan? Help us find journalism that explores the complexities of India's own sprawling population, as well as the issues that are threatening peace in South Asia. Please review our recommended news and opinion on this issue -- and submit new stories -- on our India topic page.