False Journalistic Balance

When Klaus-Martin Schulte attacked Naomi Orestes and she responded, there was quite a lot of blosopheric response to it. If you look no further than scienceblogs.com, there were no less than eight direct responses (and some lively comments as well): one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight.

What I was unaware of until today is an earlier article in Guardian by Jonathan Wolff about an outsider's look at the "controversy" around her 2004 Science paper. I saw it first on this post by Kaitlin Thaney (who also writes on the Science Commons blog), which links back to a post by Maxine Clark. A quick search shows that the only SciBling to comment on it was Jake Young.

The article is a nice look into the psychology of a media consumer and how the he-said/she-said model of journalism skews the public opinion towards the pseudo-scientific side of any manufactured controversy, by providing false balance between the scientific consensus and either a couple of cranks or a powerful lobby. Heck, Chris Mooney wrote an entire book on what the journalistic 'balance' can do to important issues that are supposed to be resolved by science, not ideology, yet the opposite actually happened.

What Kaitlin, Maxine and Jake gloss over is this statement by Wolff:

Journalistic ethics require balance. In reporting political arguments, each claim must be countered so that a lively debate can take place and readers come to their own views (well, that's the theory). Oreskes suggests that journalists have mistakenly applied the same ethical code to scientific reporting. Whenever a story on climate change is produced, a maverick nay-sayer is rolled out for the sake of balance. But this misleads the public into thinking that a few lone voices have equal weight to the scientific orthodoxy.

The key phrase is in the parantheses.

There are far too many false controversies in the American public discourse, which are not so elsewhere. There is a difference between Ethical statements, Factual statements, Convention statements and Taste statements. Many of the current debates are treated by the media as if they were Ethical, Convention or Taste statements, although they really are Factual statements. In other words, many policy debates, which should rely on readily available empirical information are treated as if they were matters of mere opinion. And all opinions are equal.

Thus, we had an experiment with trickle-down economics in the 1980s, although the economists at the time knew that the world does not work that way.

Thus, we went into Iraq despite the fact that there was wealth of available information about the lack of WMDs, a good understanding of the Iraqi society, and excellent military predictions about the wrong-headed approach to this war. Although, perhaps the decision was made on empirical facts after all - facts about ways to make money.

If the media completely abandoned the false balance approach to reporting everything, not just science (and there are other problems with it as well), then people could not get elected on platforms based on wishful thinking which is based on ideology which is at odds with reality (I know, there would be nary a Republican in any office - but that is their problem to deal with). It is not just science, but reality itself, and what we do with our understanding of reality, that is at stake.


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First, not all opinions are equal. Some are just plain crap, others are informed. Guess which have the greater value.

Now, does doing the right thing for the wrong reason make it the wrong thing to do?

I wrote an undergraduate thesis largely devoted to this disgusting journalistic practice. It seems to me, having worked in the business for a few years now, that it mostly comes down to a few things:

1.) Deadlines. If you're on a really tight deadline, it's hard to call enough people to be able to accurately gauge just what experts think about a topic. Consensus building takes a little time and research when you haven't spent your life studying something.

2.) Conflict makes a story more lively. Some journalists forget their primary allegiance is to the facts, not to whether their story is a good read. But business considerations muddy the waters considerably.

3.) Minority viewpoints can be extremely vocal, making it difficult for an untrained journalist to ignore them. Otherwise, the readers will think the journalist missed something. And, unfortunately, there's sometimes not room for a nuanced rebuttal from an expert.

4.) Some wacky postmodern concept of truth. I'm not saying journalists are actively PoMo; I'm saying that crap philosophy has tainted the way the public thinks about truth, and it's rubbed off on journalists. For them, truth is not for them to decide. Everything, including science, is relative and therefore it's up for the readers to decide where the truth lies. (Hint: We Report, You Decide)

This sort of equal time rule or at least some similar approximation is unfortunately one of the few things that prevents a complete degeneration of reporting into advocacy journalism. So it is arguably a necessary evil.

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 12 Sep 2007 #permalink