Like all China bloggers, I have been accused of being many things. Depending on the day and the post in question, I am supposedly both a “fifty cents Party” government shill and a Western anti-China propagandist. This is not surprising. I have been a bit baffled, though, by the repeated complaints that this blog isn’t “balanced.”
What I want to discuss here is (1) what “balance” actually is and (2) whether it is worth pursuing in this context.
Defining balance is actually harder than you’d think. Journalists in the mainstream media are expected to be neutral and ensure that when they write about controversial issues (or any issues, really) they address any and all viewpoints related to that issue in a relatively fair and equal manner. Perhaps, then, balance refers to giving equal emphasis to both sides of a critical divide when one exists. Certainly, within the American media, balance is often assessed on this kind of binary scale, and debate about whether certain media outlets are “balanced” often has a lot to do with how much time they spend covering specific issues, and how they cover them. But giving both “sides” equal access does not, by itself, ensure that a media outlet is balanced. The television program Hannity & Colmes, for example, routinely pitted one conservative and one liberal anchor in debate over political issues, but was roundly criticized by liberals who felt that Colmes (the show’s liberal) was not as forceful an advocate of liberalism as Shaun Hannity was for conservatism.
I would suggest, then, that balance is extremely difficult to measure, but it refers to a media outlet’s neutrality, largely as measured by the perceptions of its audience. Indeed, the evidence routinely cited to support theories of media bias tends to be poll results suggesting that a media outlet’s readership (or viewership) perceives it as biased or unbalanced.
I am inclined to suggest that in this context, “biased” and “unbalanced” are relatively synonymous. The difference is that balance may suggest what percentage of coverage is dedicated to a specific viewpoint, whereas bias may suggest ideological slanting within the coverage itself that favors one side over another, even when both are granted equal time.
Balance and the “China Blog”
When discussing balance in the context of blogs, I think it’s important to note that the conception of media balance has been constructed on the assumption that readers may be getting all their information about a given topic from a single source; namely, the newspaper. For decades, this was absolutely true. It is still true, to a lesser extent, for some newspapers, and it makes balance important because if the reporter ignores one side of the story, most people will never hear it.
But that same assumption does not hold true for blogs, least of all China blogs. Blog readers tend to get information from a variety of sources, not just one.
In fact, if our reader survey is any indication, there is almost no one who uses this blog (for example) as their sole source of information about China. 94% of respondents said they read other China blogs, and the 6% who don’t read other blogs may well get additional information from newspapers, magazines, or twitter, all of which I didn’t think to ask about in the survey.
In any event, what this means is that whatever readers are learning about China from this site, it is only part — very probably, only a small part — of the China-related information they intake. The same is likely true for most other China blogs. Whether the picture of China they receive is “balanced”, then, has more to do with the different blogs and media outlets they’ve selected to read than it does with what any individual blog posts.
Of course, any blog that claims impartiality while advancing an agenda of one sort or another is still being misleading. But the effect of that in practice is greatly diminished by the fact that almost no one on the internet reads just one blog.
Most bloggers are acutely aware that their readership is not only their readership, and that it is often shared with many of their so-called competitors. Our posts at ChinaGeeks would probably look different if I thought that this blog was most readers’ sole window into the world of China, but I know that it isn’t. This gives me and my staff the freedom to invest time in topics that interest us — and let’s face it, as this is still a volunteer gig ((Although, joining the staff now means you get a free VPN! Join us!)), the blog wouldn’t exist at all if we couldn’t report what we found interesting.
So, if measured by the topics we choose to post about, it’s undeniable that ChinaGeeks is unbalanced. One look at our tag cloud makes it clear that we often focus on controversy, and are inclined to write about the exploits of dissidents more than we are inclined to write about, say, the exploits of conservative Party members. There are a number of reasons for this, but the simplest by far is that we generally write about what interests us, and the “Party line” often doesn’t. This seems to be true for a significant percentage of China blogs in English. Perhaps our interests naturally gravitate toward the same things, or perhaps it’s a response to China’s domestic media, which has the opposite problem and which most “China bloggers” read frequently.
If we measure balance by the way we treat the topics we do write about, whether or not we’re balanced becomes fuzzier, and, I would argue, at least somewhat irrelevant. Even within the mainstream media, there are legitimate criticisms of the quest for objectivity and balance. Historically, the quest for objectivity led to reporters giving equal play to two sides of a “debate” that, with the benefit of hindsight, ought not to have been juxtaposed as equals (for example, giving equal play to the “reasoning” of lynch mobs killing blacks in the United States). Moreover, some modern journalists have suggested that balance in reporting leads to reporters recycling spin and PR platitudes rather than assessing and reporting the situation itself. Ken Silverstein, an editor at Harper’s Magazine, reportedly once said:
“‘Balanced’ coverage […] plagues American journalism and […] leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge. The idea seems to be that journalists are allowed to go out to report, but when it comes time to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting…and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.
I am inclined to agree with Silverstein. My ideal standard for this blog is one of “fair assessment” rather than one of “balance”.
There is more to be said on this topic, much more, but this post has gone on far longer than I intended already. Rather than continuing to preach, then, I’m hoping we can continue this discussion on the comments. How important is it to you that this blog, or any China blog, be “balanced”?