Balance vs fairness in giving airtime to conspiracy theorists

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The NBC has pushed ahead with its plans to air Megyn Kelly's interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones despite criticism from friends and family whose loved ones were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. Jones claims the 2012 shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults, was 'staged by actors' and 'never happened'.

Alex JonesThe interview has cost the NBC advertising contracts and Kelly other public appearance opportunities. The network has also faced backlash from other media organisations for giving oxygen to dangerous and destructive ideas.

This contentious interview has sparked a conversation about which forums should allow dissenting viewpoints and whether dangerous ideas should be given public airtime in a news context.

Megyn Kelly has defended the interview, saying reporters have interviewed terrorists, murderers and pedophiles on news and current affairs programs in the past without the backlash she has faced over the Jones interview.

'What I think we're doing is journalism,' she told The Guardian. 'The bottom line is that while it's not always popular, it's important. I would submit to you that neither I nor NBC News has elevated Alex Jones in any way. He's been elevated by 5 or 6 million viewers or listeners, and by the president of the United States ... journalists don't get the choice over who has power or influence in our country.

'Journalists don't get the choice over who has power or influence in our country' — or do they? Discerning the difference between what is fair and what is balanced continues to be both a struggle for journalists and a point of critique from audiences.

Fair is about how journalists treat people, which should be without favouritism or discrimination. Balance on the other hand, is the grey area where this Kelly interview fits.

News, just like a courtroom could be imagined as a Roberval balance. On one side, you have what society considers absolute fact: police documents, a crime scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School and grieving families whose children never came home from school that fateful day in 2012. If Jones' claims were placed on the other side of the scale, there wouldn't be enough evidence to tip the balance.

 

"In trusted public broadcast, climate deniers are not the right people to talk about coral die-off in the Great Barrier Reef, and conspiracy theories are not hard news."

 

Unlike interviewing a terrorist or a murderer, who are proven perpetrators in a court of law, a conspiracy theory by its very name remains unprovable by reasonable logic. Jones' claims can't be fact-checked and there's no substantial evidence he can provide to back up his claims. Is he even entitled to take a 'side' on an issue he was not personally involved in, nor has any verified research experience in?

Perhaps journalists should instead consider moral seriousness as a gauge to judge the integrity of not only a potential news story, but of the people who are quoted within it. If Jones thinks it's okay to disregard people's deaths and the suffering of their families, then he isn't taking Sandy Hook seriously.

Of course, nobody is suggesting we take away Jones' right to speak on the topic, but should we award his views with prime-time news television?

As I scroll through trusted news websites to read about what has gone on in the world throughout the day, I can see that the stories attempt to communicate an objective truth, despite the numerous 'alternative facts' and dissenting ideas which ooze from every corner of the internet. In trusted public broadcast, climate deniers are not the right people to talk about coral die-off in the Great Barrier Reef, and conspiracy theories are not the stuff of hard news. Please the people who call for 'freedom of speech' — but what of the truth?

 


Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is studying a double degree of Journalism and Creative Intelligence & Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She is on twitter as @frankiecrimmins. Francine is the recipient of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Young Writers.

Topic tags: Francine Crimmins, Alex Jones, Megyn Kelly, NBC, climate deniers


 

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Existing comments

I read the recent Roy Morgan survey on trustworthiness in professions. It revealed that people found journalists to be around 20% trustworthy (compared with nurses, who came out on top at 94%). It's somewhat ironic to see the author refer to "trusted news websites". I don't even know what those are anymore. And I am a journalist too. Sometimes I wish I were a nurse.
Cheree Corbin | 20 June 2017


It is beyond my comprehension how people can hold these views about the Sandy Hook school massacre.
Joanna Skinner | 20 June 2017


Thanks Francine for bring this to our attention. It seems that denialists of all types are increasingly being given airtime to spruik their conspiracy theories in the name of free speech. Sadly there are ill informed people who believe their messages. This is a very worrying development when fantasy overtakes reality. In my field of research into human induced climate change, I see these stories every other day. Sadly it has reached the point where ill-informed people are threatening scientists who dare to tell it as it is. The media has a responsibility to ensure that the news and information that they broadcast is not 'fake news' but that it is information for the benefit of humanity. Our very future as a civilization may depend on them.
Gavin | 20 June 2017


'You're not entitled to your opinion, you're only entitled to what you can argue for'. So said Patrick Stokes from Deakin Uni in an article for The Conversation back in October 2012. This would be a a good rule for journalists to run over anyone seeking to air their opinions through the media before those options are actually given air time or column space.
Ginger Meggs | 21 June 2017


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