Discussion Section: Thoughts on Balance

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

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”?

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0 thoughts on “Discussion Section: Thoughts on Balance”

  1. Here’s a bit that was originally in this post. I decided to take it out because it’s overly specific but it might be relevant to the discussion tangentially.

    Let us take, for a moment, one of the posts on this site I am most proud of: December 2009’s “Liu Xiaobo, Drifting With the Tide”.

    The post is, in a sense, doing the same thing a newspaper article might do, in that it summarizes a recent newsworthy event, collects reactions to that event, and attempts to offer some context in which we might better understand that event. However, it completely fails to stand up to the standards of objectivity demanded from mainstream publications. The case is fairly clearly being presented from one perspective, and the author (me) explicitly states his dismay at the Liu’s sentencing. Is it balanced? Using any of the definitions suggested above, we would have to say no.

    But is it fair? Is it accurate? I would submit that it is both fair and accurate. While the tone obviously suggests the author’s conclusion about who is right and wrong, there is no information falsified or intentionally omitted here. Nor has one side been misrepresented, although as in so many cases, the Chinese government’s “side” doesn’t get as much play as Liu’s because the lack of a transparent legal system makes getting accurate information about a case extremely difficult, and because Liu’s advocates are intentionally spreading information whereas the Chinese government is just as intentionally trying to restrict it. Given the information available at that time, I feel that the post is fair.

    Moreover, I think there’s some value in the imbalance readers will inevitably find in that piece. Some issues call for a more impartial touch, true, but in a case such as this, I think a little humanity is welcomed by most readers over the sterilized “balance” of traditional journalistic objectivity.

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  2. I don’t want balance in the blogs I read, but informed and articulate analysis or opinions. All that matters is that the author’s biases are are out in the open, and that opposing viewpoints are acknowledged and then addressed. Can’t be that hard:-)

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  3. A China English language blog is not going to be regularly cited on a major news channel. This stands in stark contrast to English language blogs that write about American politics and is probably analogous to Chinese language blogs writing about American politics. The Chinese English language blog has rarely, if ever, had an impact on popular opinion, and this will continue to be the case as long as national politics and mainstream media outlets continue to ask for nothing more from the community of China analysts than an occasional quote in a short segment piece.

    Until that changes, if it ever does, no one besides the writer(s) of the blog will have a stake in what the message being presented is. Certainly a China English language bloggers words will not in the near future ever have a momentous impact on the lives of communities in China or in the West. That’s not to discount the help and insight that China English Blogs offer to individuals – here the blogs can make a discernible impact. It’s just that they have no impact on the policy levels that have the power to impact people’s lives through power of authority.

    If a charge of bias is leveled by someone who feels that such bias could turn into something that’s politically dangerous, then those charges are baseless. China English Blogs, as isolated as they are from mainstream conversation and policy circles are harmless.

    By contrast, I would argue that your survey statistic also indicates that a majority of people who have opinions on Chinese Bloggers read Chinese Blogs regularly (not only extensively). When these folks scream bias – and “these folks” includes other bloggers – the essence of the charge is different. The commenter is often saying that an idea hasn’t been flushed out enough, or that it’s intellectually weak in some area. This definition of “bias” is defined from within the community of China bloggers and China blog readers. As such, charge of “bias” against your blog cannot necessarily be compared to charges of bias against American political bloggers funded by NewsCorp.

    One thought back to how much concerted effort you put into this post and a gazillion others – for no money and relatively little credit outside of this community! – and the length of my response to you on this issue, and you’ll find a good argument for a more intellectual, rather than political, definition of bias.

    There’s also a wholly different issue of community trolls, but it’s too obvious to mention here.

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  4. I am one of those that reads other blogs next to this one. I always enjoy it! It provides (in-depth) information from a new point of view (compared to main stream media) and less-discussed topics. Of course I keep in mind that this is one approach to the particular topic/news. I don’t see any problem with balance.

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  5. Stefan put it better than I did above: “All that matters is that the author’s biases are are out in the open, and that opposing viewpoints are acknowledged and then addressed.”

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  6. No it doesn’t matter that the author’s biases are out in the open nor that they address opposing viewpoints. THEY ARE NOT A NEWS ORGANIZATION.

    As readers we don’t pay for their content, they do this for free and can write whatever the heck they want, how they want, that’s the point of a blog. The idea that there should be some expectation on the part of the reader for a BLOG to be balanced is absolutely ridiculous.

    What I don’t understand is why China blogs in particular seem to be obsessed with this whole question of “balance”. I read news commentary blogs from expats in a lot of other countries, and they don’t seem to be bothered by this question of balance. It is their blog and represents their opinion-end of story. Why do China bloggers feel this pressure to assume the role of “objective” journalist? These are blogs, not newspapers and if you are using them as news sources and judging them as news sources then you are wildly delusional.

    Custer, great post, but besides Damjan, I don’t think people get it. To read your whole post and then say “I agree that bloggers need to address opposing viewpoints and that they should clearly state their biases for us.” I mean if you ARE going to take a blog seriously as a new source, then at least READ the posts in their entirety.

    No one owes us readers anything, if you disagree with a blog’s viewpoint then take it up in the comments or don’t read that particular blog, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that these people who ENTERTAIN you for FREE have some responsibility to include acknowledgment of every possible opposing viewpoint in their posts.

    People are getting more and more crazy.

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  7. @ AndyR: I think the reason China blogs in particular are so focused on this is that there is such an issue with balance in the real media coverage, both from the West (although I think that’s increasingly less of an issue) and from the domestic press (censored as it ever was). So there’s some hope from some readers that blogs can somehow balance that, especially because bloggers tend to be people who’ve lived in and studied China for a while, whereas often reporters from the West aren’t China specialists, just people who got assigned here. (Again, this is less true and less important than it was a few years ago, I think. Lots of foreign correspondents here now who are kicking ass, taking names.)

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  8. I’ve never wondered about this question. When I was growing up in Australia we were taught that newspapers have certain political leanings which creates an agenda for what and how they report. I never imagined that being neutral or unbiased was even an option, but rather you had to be alert to ever present bias.

    That was certainly my father’s argument for watching three different news broadcasts every night on TV, which as a kid I found intolerably boring to see the same thing three times.

    Living in the UK I saw the same pattern. If you read the Guardian you are left wing, the Telegraph you are right wing. If you wanted balance you needed to read both.

    But, this is a blog. I thought blogs were online diaries of sorts. Who ever thought of writing an unbiased report in their diary?

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  9. AndyR,

    Of course bloggers can write any crazy shit they want, it’s their blog and the internet is big enough for all of us, but the GOOD blogs that I return to care about their reputations, and they build them by being honest and open about their biases. This is Blogging 101.

    C.Custer’s post isn’t about what bloggers should do when they blog, but what good bloggers should do when they blog. Clearly.

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  10. Great post. Forget balance. Balance is both boring and impossible.

    I strive to be accurate and fair and keep the comments open for all viewpoints (except those that are racist, sexist, etc., or strictly personal attacks on anyone). Stefan’s summation, directly above, nails it.

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  11. “My ideal standard for this blog is one of “fair assessment” rather than one of “balance”. -Couldn’t agree more.

    Kind of reminds me of my job–which has absolutely nothing to do with China (so I guess I should say “sorry for the off-topic”), but where you have several groups of people who are impossible to satisfy all at once. So, depending on what I just happen to write about, I may be a PSfanboy, an X-Crap promoter or a Wiierdo/retard. There’s always too many idiots around the internet, who will always complain yet who will always be too stupid to accept one’s different arguments. However, it would be even more stupid of me if I ever actually wanted to write only so I could make them all happy. That’s silly, useless and really doesn’t have anything to do with a solid journalism. If you think something’s good, you should say it; if you think something’s bad, you should say it as well. And if you think something’s worth talking about, than you should absolutely positively and with no doubts say it… and than just hope there will be at least a few people in the discussion section, capable of having a meaningful conversation. Actually, from what I saw, ChinaGeeks is pretty lucky as far as having polite readers! So jealous…

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  12. China blogs written in English will never have a substantial impact.

    Online forums and blogs in Chinese such as tianya, mop, kaidi, weiming, shuimu, tiexue, etc. are where things happen and where the Chinese gather and share their opinions, and their views run the gamut from the far left to the far right with every twisted thing in between. They’re a gazillion times livelier and more dynamic for Chinese speakers than the aloof China blogs written in a language most of them don’t or find difficult to understand and which never make serious attempts to reach to the 400m Chinese netizens.

    So, enjoy your nice little world.

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  13. @ koi: I think you completely missed the point, both of the post and of this site. If you think the site is trying to compete with mop and the like, you are very, very mistaken about the point of all this…

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  14. As others have written already this is is not a news organization so objectivity isn’t necessarily a requirement. Moreover, I suspect that most readers of this type of blogs at least want less objectivity and more opinions.

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