“Balanced” and “Unbalanced” Journalism

Journalists and editors seem to insist on balanced reporting. This involves statements from different sides of an argument, but too often doesn’t involve any fact checking.

Jay Rosen at PressThink has an example on an accusation of plagiarism against Rick Perlstein in his book  “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”

The problem here is that the Times had what it needed to make a call. “Perlstein plagiarized Shirley” was a checkable claim. Shirley’s accusations were online. Perlstein’s source notes were online. The Times knows what plagiarism is. Its writers and editors have to guard against it every day. Under these conditions, “leaving it there” amounts to malpractice, even though it still feels like normal practice and, as I said, the safer choice.

The risk the Times was taking was exposed the following week. After receiving complaints from readers, the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, took a closer look. “We wrote about it because it was out there and thought we could take it head-on in the story,” said deputy media editor Bill Brink. “We did that in the most responsible way possible, and put it in context.”

Rosen’s criticism is based on this failure to fact-check when those facts were readily available.

Plagiarism is not the only area where false balance is common. Writing on climate change is also distorted.

Last month, the Telegraph in the UK reported that 200 senior managers at the BBC had to be re-trained not to insert “false balance” into stories like climate change, where a call could be made. “The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies.” That’s a form of distortion, practiced by the BBC against itself. But instead of favoring one side, it pushes the account toward a phony midpoint. Still distortion, but it looks more innocent.

Another example we see is writing about vaccines where anti-vaccine campaigners are given equal or greater emphasis than the science that has repeatedly demonstrated that vaccines are some of the greatest advances in 20th and 21st medicine.

Other areas are GMOs – products that have been extensively studied and found safe; organic food – no healthier than food produced by modern techniques; and close to home this summer – lies spread by anti-choice activists.

The reporting on the abortion protesters focused on the images they displayed, but there was absolutely no mention in the media on the falsehoods they spread. There might be an argument based on personal morals and ethics on abortion, but facts are facts.

This is a chronic problem with the media, no matter how many times it is pointed out that much of what some people claim the media insists on ‘balance‘. Peter Ellington axplains further:

it is important to not confuse the right to be heard with an imagined right to be taken seriously. If an idea fails to survive in the community of experts, its public profile should diminish in proportion to its failure to generate consensus within that community.

Most importantly: “If all views are equal, then all views are worthless.”

False balance can also be created by assuming that a person from outside the field (a non-expert) will somehow have a perspective that will shed light on an issue, that the real expert is too “caught up in the details” to be objective.

But suggesting that an expert is naive usually indicates an attempt at discrediting rather than truth seeking. Credibility is more about process than authority, and to be a recognised expert is to work within the process of science.

Also, if a piece of science is being criticised, we should ask if the criticism itself has been published. It’s not enough that someone with apparent authority casts doubt as this is simply an appeal to authority – an appeal that critics of mainstream science themselves use as a warrant to reject consensus.

A second journalistic imperative would be to recognise that not all issues are binary.

The metaphor that a coin has two sides is a powerful one, and the temptation to look at both sides of an issue is naturally strong. But the metaphor also assumes an equal weighting, and that both sides present the same space for discussion.

He lists three points for journalists to consider:

The best method of dealing with cranks, conspiracy theorists, ideologues and those with a vested interest in a particular outcome is the best method for science reporting in general:

  • insist on expertise
  • recognise where the burden of proof sits
  • stay focused on the point at issue.

A majority of climate researchers accept a changing climate. Virtually all researchers and physicians recognize the importance of vaccines. Food scientists accept the benefits of GMOs, and that the cost of organic food far outweighs the nutritional benefits. Medical and psychological researchers know that pregnancy, especially unwanted pregnancy, carries more risk than abortion.

There are examples in every field where mainstream journalists just repeat statements without verifying the truth on these statements, in many cases they don’t consider the negative effects of pretending there is an equivalency when there is not.

If journalists want to be taken seriously, they need to act responsibly.



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