Fairness and accuracy

2011-03-23

in Geek stuff, Writing

It occurred to me recently that when writing about factual matters, fairness and accuracy do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Specifically, it is quite possible to make accurate statements that are not fair – for instance, because they lack context. This is especially true when it comes to actions that were taken in unusually difficult circumstances. For example, it can be said with complete accuracy that TEPCO – the company that operates the Fukushima nuclear complex – has intentionally put workers in situations where their lives have been at risk due to radiation and explosion dangers. Just saying that, however, is not especially fair. TEPCO has made those choices when faced with the terrifying prospect of massive radioactive release from breached reactors and/or spent fuel pools.

Naturally, there are less dramatic examples. For instance, it is quite different to accidentally injure somebody when playing a contact sport carefully than it is to intentionally injure someone while motivated by malice. You can make the accurate statement: “John broke Frank’s nose.” But fairness often requires that you say: “Because he didn’t like the way Frank looked at him” or “By accident while they were enjoying a spirited rugby match.”

I am not sure if it is possible to be fair without being accurate. Perhaps. For instance, you could strategically omit information that would unduly prejudice the person who you are communicating with. Arguably, you could even provide information which is misleading but which helps to convey an accurate overall picture. You could say something like: “Doctors made every effort to save the patient’s life”, even though there was a million-dollar operation that had a 0.5% chance of saving the person.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Alison March 24, 2011 at 10:46 am

I dig the lighting on that woman’s face.

Milan March 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm

It was super dark. That’s at 25,600 ISO.

oleh March 27, 2011 at 1:16 am

I also enjoyed the photo.

As I read your examples of “fairness”, it seemed to relate to putting an event into context. I agree that is important. For example, I am concerned that the media in focussing on sensational soundbites does not do as good a job of this as it could , and in my opinion should. Politicians are especially the targets of media reports of “accuracy” without the benefit of “fairness” (ie putting the comment into context.)

Antonia March 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm

@Oleh For example, I am concerned that the media in focussing on sensational soundbites does not do as good a job of this as it could , and in my opinion should.
Indeed that is one reason why I find reading the NYTimes so enjoyable, particularly its recent coverage of events in Japan. The level of detail and concerted attempts to fairly represent the situation and the expert’s views have shown up every other news source I’ve tried (though there is a scale and some outlets are less far off than others).
I wish it was offering more payment frameworks after its paywall goes up tomorrow, as none of those it is launching suit my use or budget.

Antonia March 28, 2011 at 1:12 pm

On TEPCO putting workers at risk, I agree with those commentators that think leaving a national emergency so far within the hands of the utility company (though of course it had to be substantially involved), especially one where corporate safety integrity is already in doubt, is problematic for a number of reasons.

Milan April 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm

One big area of tension between fairness and accuracy is equal treatment.

Give someone a lawyer, let them write a letter to the editor, grant their appeal – all of these will probably increase the accuracy of your assessment. 

But if you don’t offer everyone the same treatment, others can complain legitimately that you are not being fair.

Of course, sometimes there are more important purposes to be served than fairness. Also, the fact that we did the wrong thing in one case should not obligate us to do the wrong thing again.

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