Impartiality is not the same as objectivity or balance or neutrality, although it contains elements of all three. Nor is it the same as simply being fair – although it is unlikely you will be impartial without being fair-minded. At its simplest it means not taking sides.
Impartiality is about providing a breadth of view.
It requires a journalist to actively seek out and weigh up the relevant arguments on any issue and to present them appropriately without preconceptions or bias.
That does not rule out reporting what is controversial; nor does it prohibit fair, evidence-based judgements.
The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines set out the principles and practices that cover the BBC’s commitment to due impartiality. They also explain that the term ‘due’ means there is no absolute test of impartiality. It can mean different things depending on the subject and nature of the output, and the expectations and understanding of the audience.
Impartiality is about enabling the national debate – assuring that people, over time or the course of a debate, will hear all significant opinions and have access to the information they need to make an informed choice.
Audiences turn to the BBC to help them to make sense of events through disinterested analysis and by hearing a range of relevant facts, views and opinions.
At times that range will include those who think the unthinkable; even those who say what you might think is the unsayable. Their voices are often heard in the digital universe. Impartiality means making sure that all the other voices are heard too.
"Even in the world of showbusiness there are sometimes two or more sides to a story"
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Being an impartial witness to events does not mean being mealy mouthed about them. Due impartiality does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic values.
Good journalism in the field can sometimes be about bearing witness to events that others may wish to hide or ignore. The reporting of the plight of the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991 by the late Charles Wheeler is one such example. The BBC foreign correspondent was genuinely affected by what he saw, but his reporting was a scrupulously accurate account of what he had witnessed.
At the end of the same decade, Fergal Keane’s reports from Rwanda reflected his personal witness to a savage genocide.
Both correspondents formed their judgements after a careful and impartial assessment of the events that confronted them.
Impartiality includes the space to make a judgement. You can tell your audience where a particular argument sits in a current debate, or point out that a particular view is a minority one.
The important point is that you arrive at your judgement impartially, after ensuring you have a proper understanding of the differing views on the questions. The judgement must be based on evidence and your reporting should include an account of that evidence.
You should always be prepared to account for your judgement and explain why it is an impartial one.
At times impartiality can also mean challenging your own assumptions or those of your team or contributors. It means reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion and ensuring the BBC gives due weight to the many and diverse areas of argument.
Being impartial doesn’t mean only finding the most starkly opposing views and putting them head to head in an interview. It requires testing both the strengths and weaknesses of any argument.
It also involves getting the tone right, especially in long interviews. The same question – the same words – can come across as an impartial query or an opinionated pre-judgement, simply by tone of voice.
Impartiality over time
Impartiality on complex issues can be achieved over time, and that means editorial judgements must be consistent. You must look back at what you’ve done before and what you’re planning to do in the future.
Any single piece of output – particularly a news item in a bulletin – should be fair. However, with a breaking or developing story it may take some time before it’s possible to achieve impartiality.
Some stories, such as with wars or election campaigns, unfold over weeks or months. It’s the responsibility of the editor in charge of a particular section of output to ensure that over time all significant and relevant voices have been heard.
The BBC Academy offers face-to-face and online courses for BBC staff.