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December 16, 2017
November 16, 2017

Both Sides Aren’t Equal

Bothsideism slows change

Written by Jeff Samsonow

One of the things we’ve tried to point out in our regular Headlines feature is when local news coverage seems to be giving too much weight to a side that doesn’t deserve it. I’m a believer in the journalism adage to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and we sure don’t do that when we give everyone equal time.

Like every journalist, I was taught to be objective and get “both sides” of the story. It’s how most news stories are still written, and how most overall coverage is balanced in print and broadcast. 

I’ve seen it called “he said/she said” journalism and it’s picked up the term of  “bothsideism” these days. 

“bothsidesism — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.” — Paul Krugman, New York Times

It’s also a problem when it comes to issues we need real action on. Things like climate change (including how we build our cities and move through them), minority rights, racism and sexism. By giving equal time and, more recently, social media promotion to all possible voices and opinions on such stories there’s no need for audience members to confront their privilege or habits, because someone similar would surely not be on the news (all the time) if something needed to change.

I really dislike when this happens on important topics and this week there were too many examples for me to ignore. We need to call this stuff out. 

Education minister David Eggen meets with students about new GSA legislation. photo: Chris Schwarz

With the passing of bill 24, which protects the privacy of students who join school clubs known as gay-straight alliances (GSAs), it was no doubt that Alberta’s homophobia would find plenty of time in print and on the air.

Allegations that GSAs are actually secret sex education camps run by a socialist government bent on destroying our very foundation probably don’t belong on the news. It will do nothing to challenge those with homophobic or transphobic views to re-consider their opinions or actions. 

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Then there’s Edmonton’s CFL football team name

Inuit and Indigenous peoples in Edmonton and across the country have been asking for years to have the name changed. The team refuses. 

The Edmonton Journal (Postmedia) ran a whole slate of letters to the editor that tell us how the team name doesn’t need to change. By prominently publishing and sharing these voices the Journal equates the voices of the oppressed with those of the oppressor. And it leaves people in the audience feeling like the two are equal. 

CBC Edmonton did a similar thing on its morning show. Here we had an older white man talking about how the name maybe isn’t that bad or that it’s not a big issue. He’s pitted against a woman of colour and an Indigenous woman, with the audience again presented with two sides as if they are equal because of journalistic “balance”.

One more example this week here in Edmonton.

The fallout of a Hollywood producer’s sexual crimes against women sparked a large reaction from women in all industries and walks of life, who are now sharing their painful and common stories of assault and harassment. It also means many are seeking resources and counselling to help heal, taxing our already over-burdened sexual assault services.

This “me too” moment is seeing powerful men fall, which is basically unheard of. That is going to cause a lot of pushback from status quo supporters. 

This pushback ignores the larger change needed societally, of course. 

And it ends up in articles like this editorial from 630 CHED’s Bob Layton (Corus/Global) wondering if we are considering men’s reputations enough. Those would be the reputations of people like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey. 

The editorial also throws a lot of doubt at the veracity of any of the claims we’re hearing about, from Hollywood to the office down the hall. It does this through highlighting some potential false accusations from decades ago. It also does what bothsideism usually subtly implies, when it asks the audience to chime in with their thoughts – making this wide open for debate and equating false accusations with real harassment and violence women face. 

Since that’s an editorial, it’s obviously Layton’s opinion and not a news story, but bothsideism occurs when it’s presented to the radio, TV and online audiences of Corus/Global. Blatantly so when the website’s “related” stories point the audience to stories of sex crimes. (More on how the stations may actually feel about this specific case below.)

“The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.” — Jay Rosen, PressThink

I’ve written here before about the need for journalists to consider why they include or exclude something from a story. It’s vastly more important than jamming in all the potential facts and as many sides as possible. It would be great if more of this critical thinking was applied to more stories.

Bothsideism often leads to a story that allows audience members who share oppressive ideas to take comfort in their outdated or harmful opinions. It can also lead to whipping up hate against minority or vulnerable groups of people who are asking for help, human rights or to be treated with decency. 

Watch for bothsideism in Edmonton. I’ll keep calling it out here through our regular coverage of Edmonton’s news and you can always let newsrooms hear your thoughts through email or on social media. You can also let me know about particularly egregious examples.


A note about that Corus/Global editorial.

It was changed later in the day, so when I mention some of those Hollywood folks by name it is not by making a leap of logic. It was in the original text, as was a photo of Bill Cosby (replaced by a stock photo of a gavel, which isn’t used in Canadian courts BTW). Missing in that original was also the mention that we have silenced too many women for too long.

It was obviously felt by someone(s) at the stations that pitying the reputations of serial harassers, to say nothing of everyday sexism, was a step too far and changes were made. 

The editorial does not make mention of what was changed or why. (Which is a story for another day.) You can see the original in screenshots below. 

CHED sexual assault screenshots

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