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The Fairness Doctrine: Was it Fair?

by on September 12, 2014

All the discussions we’ve been having in class lately about what should and shouldn’t be reported as news got me thinking about an old law I researched for a project back in freshman year: The Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine was a Federcal Communications Commission (FCC) policy introduced in 1949 that said that any media outlet with a broadcast license had to present controversial issues in a way that the Commission thought was balanced (in other words, present both sides when telling the story).

The idea behind the doctrine was to encourage media to present more information. However, in 1985 the FCC published a report showing the Doctrine was actually having a “chilling effect” on free speech: instead of presenting more balanced controversial stories, a lot of media outlets were simply staying away from controversial stories altogether. So, in 1987, the Doctrine was eliminated. There have been a couple of attempts to reinstate the Doctrine since, but so far it has remained eliminated.

I understand the idea behind the Fairness Doctrine. It’s hard to expect journalists to be perfectly objective with their stories. But does making sure the stories present both sides outweigh the cost of shutting out some media outlets? Would a Doctrine like this work in today’s media world?

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One Comment
  1. mariahscafidi permalink

    I think that in a perfect world, something like The Fairness Doctrine would be a great way to ensure that all sides of a story are accurately represented and that no facts are omitted from a story. However, the world isn’t perfect, and I still don’t think a Doctrine like this would work today. I think that you can clearly tell some media outlets are biased towards certain political parties, genders, races, classes, etc…and I think a Doctrine would probably have the same effect today than it did when it was first created.

    I think the severity of today’s events and the speed at which they happen would definitely turn some news organizations away from reporting on stories at all – and the ones that did report would probably lose some viewers because of the grotesque-ness of it all. I think in some ways, you still do have media outlets that are pushing to show the full picture, but I think those media outlets are rare and don’t pick up as much speed as other networks or organizations.

    In addition, I think our public as a whole is sort of a double-edged sword when it comes to news. On one hand, we want to know the full picture, and we feel that we deserve to know the full picture, but on the other hand, we do want sensitivity around the stories we see or read, and I don’t think there’s a perfect way to satisfy both ends of the spectrum. In the paper I wrote for last week, I used Rolling Stone’s cover of the Boston Bomber as an example – people were outraged that he was given a cover because he was being treated like a rockstar, but Rolling Stone’s sales of that cover doubled within the week. It’s just hard to accurately represent all sides but still, in my opinion, be sensitive about what people may or may not want to see. So I don’t believe a Doctrine would work in today’s world due to this reason.

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