Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 17, No 1 (1992)

Guest Editors' Introduction

Philip Savage (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

Bill Gilsdorf (Concordia University)

Robert Hackett (Simon Fraser University)

Many of the ideas and debates about balance raised in this edition of the Canadian Journal of Communication first took shape in a joint session of the Canadian Communication Association (CCA) and the Association for the Study of Canadian Radio and Television (ASCRT) at the Learned Societies Conference in Victoria, June 1990. Free trade was an issue of some debate at the session; it was just over a year and a half since the November 1988 federal campaign which had divided Canadians over the free trade issue and changed the nature of the debate about balance in broadcasting and other mass media.

Now, a year and half further down the road, the free trade debate seems at times rather distant. Other concerns have raised in equally stormy ways the debate over the relationship of the mass media to political-social change: Native concerns and the Oka crisis; the failure of Meech Lake and further constitutional angst; the events in the Persian Gulf leading to an American-led war against Iraq; and now, ironically, a renewal of all the political jockeying and public support-building associated with Canada-U.S. trade as Canada enters anew into continental trade talks, now to include Mexico.

From Philip Savage's perspective as a researcher with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, there has been quite enough to keep anyone concerned with objectivity claims rather busy. David Suzuki and "The Nature of Things" took on the powerful forest industry with their program special, "Voices in the Forest," examining environmentally questionable forestry practices. One result of the program was an advertising boycott of the program by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce -- a fairly uncommon kind of event in Canadian broadcasting. Allegations of CBC bias in the Meech Lake process have re-surfaced in May 1991. About a year earlier some national newspaper columnists had described the CBC as Meech cheerleaders but more recently it is argued that CBC news was cynically anti-Meech and anti-Mulroney. The latest fracas involves a running battle of words between Queen's University professor and former CRTC Chairman, John Meisel, and CBC News' Ottawa bureau chief Elly Alboim with various columnists taking pot shots from the side (an analysis of the media coverage of this debate itself could be a testament to the nature of balance in broadcasting). But the coup de grace -- some might call it a coup d'état -- was the appointment in March 1991 of the University of Toronto economist John Crispo to the CBC Board of Directors immediately after Mr Crispo castigated the CBC in front of the CRTC "for what I perceive to be deliberate, continuing and repeated intellectual dishonesty in virtually all its news and public affairs programming."

Yet if these recent events initially appear more interesting and even more pressing than free trade, as guest editors of this issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication we have found it useful to step back a bit and examine free trade coverage and some earlier examples of the struggle over meaning and power in Canadian broadcasting which centre on the term "balance."

Researchers from a broad range of disciplines and certainly those with different interests within the field of communications have shared a concern over what balance implies at a philosophical and practical level. For many scholars "balance" and "objectivity" form part of the cherished canons of professional journalism which when interrogated are very revealing about the constraints and parameters within which mass media enterprises operate.

Suzanne Strutt, until recently Executive Director of MediaWatch, and Lynne Hissey, Simon Fraser University, point out in their paper dealing with feminist approaches to balance how very difficult it is to critically examine the issue of balance; as they suggest, who would be so daring as to say s/he is opposed to balance? Our own reading of philosophy tells us that none other than Aristotle was among the first to espouse the concept of balance as a guide for political and personal action. "Balance in all things" became a sort of societal and individual code of conduct for upper and middle class Britons in the 19th century. Modern Canadians who like to think of their political culture being based on tolerance and accommodation (the best of British fair play and parliamentary democracy, etc.), are keen to be viewed as "reasonable" and "balanced" in their approach to most problems.

Regardless though of how much a "common-sense" approval of the idea of balance pervades our society, within the context of modern political-economic institutions such as mass media, one would be naive indeed to treat balance uncritically. In the Canadian experience, and indeed throughout the world, balance in broadcasting itself has become an area of profound struggle, a site for intense and prolonged conflict over meaning and power.

If in some ways the battles for "freedom of the press" originated in 17th and 18th century Britain and flourished in 19th century America, the history of Canada's broadcasting in the 20th century contains all the elements of the modern paradox of power and information in modern society. Broadcasting in Canada is a particularly important site of contradictions about balance given the competing forces at play throughout its history. Since its inception in the early decades of the 20th century, Canada's broadcasting system has witnessed greatly divergent concerns: public versus private; national versus regional; federal versus provincial; English versus French; bureaucratic professionalism versus more democratic forms of access; etc. Within the midst of this very politically and economically charged context, a particular application, or rather, applications, to balance have evolved.

Broadcasting legislation in Canada makes specific reference to balance, both in terms of a more general concern for balance among different types of programming, and in the more specific sense of political balance within programming. The former was reflected in various pronouncements about the CBC from its inception in the 1930s and then formally enunciated in the 1968 Broadcasting Act:

(The CBC should) be a balanced service of information, enlightenment and entertainment for people of different ages, interests and tastes covering the whole range of programming in fair proportion (sec.2(g)(i)).

Interestingly the idea of balance over the whole CBC schedule is reiterated in the new Broadcasting Act of 1991 and extended to apply to the broadcasting system as a whole -- both public and private elements.

The other balance requirement in legislation deals with fairness and representativeness within programs themselves and was stated in section 2(d) of the 1968 Act to apply to all broadcasters. It requires programming to provide a "reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern..."

Peter Cook, University College of Southern Queensland (Australia), and Myles Ruggles, Simon Fraser University, point out in their paper that the new Broadcasting Act makes some changes to these sections. In the new Act, actual reference to the word "balance" is dropped, although the same sort of thinking appears to be applied, namely that programming should "provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern" (sec. 3 (1)(h)(i)). Whether these changes are significant remains to be seen. Certainly much of the CRTC's and even the general public's concerns about balance have started with a reference to section 2(d) of the old Act.

Both the Strutt/Hissey and Cook/Ruggles papers provide historical analysis of how this situation came to be. Strutt and Hissey argue along the lines of American theorist Michael Schudson that regulatory monitoring of journalistic balance tends to follow up and legitimize pre-existing journalistic patterns of objectivity that were adopted principally for economic reasons. Peter Cook elsewhere expands on this idea with detailed examination of the Canadian regulatory history; in this volume, he and Ruggles review some of that history.

The Strutt/Hissey paper also makes reference to Gaye Tuchman's work on professional journalistic practices. Philip Savage had the opportunity to rework some of this material in case studies comparing commercial and community radio stations in one Canadian city. His observations bear out much of what Tuchman is saying, namely that the concept of news and information balance in commercial radio allows reporters to deal with a relatively narrow scope of issues and concerns in a manner consistent with broadcasters' twin goals of maximizing audience and minimumizing program risk-taking.

In essence, the debate over balance in Canadian broadcasting revolves around two fundamentally different ways of conceptualizing the term, either as a rather absolute standard against which media performance can be measured objectively or, more critically, as a means of meaning creation which is itself embedded within certain power structures in society. Strutt and Hissey describe the tension between these two approaches in terms of feminists' dual critiques of "bad balance" and "balance as usual." Strutt and Hissey discuss how feminists have been somewhat successful in using the "bad balance" argument with the CRTC and broadcasters to fight for a "better" balance of women both in front of and behind the camera. This critique of "bad balance" has had an effect both, as Strutt/Hissey show, on particular broadcasting policy developments and in law, as evinced by the new Act which not only makes reference to the need for programming suitable to men and women, but also to the particular needs of multicultural minorities and Native people.

The Strutt/Hissey paper, however, reveals a level of discontent with the success of the "bad balance" approach; by fighting along the bad balance lines, less powerful groups in society, such as women, may be co-opted to the assumptions underlying the "balance as usual" approach. It is argued that "balance as usual" accepts a liberal-pluralist model of power relations that ignores the existence of the marginalized, thus reproducing only the dominant points of view. In other words, some marginal points of view may have "made the grade," but for the most part balance as carried out journalistically and otherwise continues to provide a rather limited balance "between competing, already privileged voices and interpretations."

Cook and Ruggles continue the debate between "bad balance" and "balance as usual" with their close examination of balance in regulatory practise. They show how much of the CRTC's concern with "bad balance" was inflexibly applied to controversial programming at Vancouver Community Radio in the last few years, arguing that "balance is more likely to be enforced when powerful institutions are threatened." They argue that the spirit of fairness and accessibility would be better served by applying balance requirements to the broadcasting system as a whole. This, Cook and Ruggles argue, was the case with the CRTC's licensing of religious specialty programming. Cook and Ruggles imply that when the regulator is forced to question "balance as usual" and accept the argument that commercial models of objectivity have their own inherent imbalances, the broadcasting system as a whole becomes much more democratic. Or as they put it, "balance has its finest hour."

Lydia Miljan of the Fraser Institute's National Media Archive puts forward the case for the use of content analysis in monitoring the way in which particular issues are balanced in Canada's major media, particularly the two main national English- language broadcasters, CBC and CTV. Her organization's On Balance monthly newsletter gained a lot of attention early in its history with studies examining the media's free trade and 1988 federal election coverage. Miljan's critique of the media is firmly established within the "bad balance" paradigm. The work that she has carried out over the last two and a half years with the National Media Archive is painstaking and often revealing.

Stephen Block of the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University takes a very different perspective on media coverage of the trade deal, with particular emphasis on how the concept of balance is used by interest groups, especially those associated with neo-conservative political philosophies. In that sense, Block argues that "balance as usual," and indeed the Fraser Institute's critique of media balance, was a deliberate attempt to further a political agenda.

The Hackett, Gilsdorf and Savage critique is based in large part on what is seen as Miljan and the Fraser Institute's failure to address critically the notion of balance at all. While there are important differences of opinion between Miljan and us on methodological grounds, our main concern is that content analysis has been applied beyond its reasonable limits in the On Balance work.

We are very fortunate to have received commentaries on the issue of balance from broadcasting scholars and practitioners, Marc Raboy of Université Laval and William Morgan, Ombudsman in the Office of Journalistic Policy, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Their range of opinions and insights add a depth of understanding to the discussion that rounds off this examination of balance in broadcasting.

Finally, there seems to be little doubt that balance in broadcasting will continue for some time to be a much debated concept from both philosophical and practical points of view. Our hope in this special edition of the Canadian Journal of Communication, with its range of perspectives on the debate, is to minimize uncritical use of the term "balance" by those in mass media and politics as well as by researchers themselves.

Notes

1
The opinions expressed in this introduction are those of the guest editors and they do not necessarily represent an official position of the CBC.
2
Transcripts of Proceedings, CRTC Public Hearing on CBC Budget Cutbacks, 21 March 1991, p.1760.
3
One need not look further than coverage of the 1991 GUlf War. CNN reporter Peter Arnett became the subject of intense controversy himself in his attempt to "balance" American war propaganda and Iraqi propaganda by continuing to report from Baghdad. Balancing the views of enemies in war time is, as we know historically, often regarded akin to treason. When a Greek public broadcaster criticized CNN for providing only a pro- American point of view, Ed Turner, CNN vice-president of newsgathering, responded that in contrast the view from the United States did not support balancing American and Iraqi interests, "We're getting enormous criticism that we're not being good Americans, that we're not patriotic enough, that we're not doing enough to give the American point of view." (Broadcasting Abroad, April 1991). In Australia, after Prime Minister Bob Hawke criticized the publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation for lack of "objectivity" on Gulf War coverage, ABC management intervened to drop a report previewing a Sydney peace rally (Broadcast (Magazine), 15 February 1991).

References

Cook, Peter G. The Concept of Balance in Canadian Broadcasting: Public Issues and CRTC Policies. Unpublished MA Thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1982.

Philip Savage. Doing Community Radio: The Practices of Information Programming at a Community Radio Station in comparison to a Commercial Radio Station. Unpublished MA Thesis,Simon Fraser University, 1989.