Artificial Balance

All issues have two (or more) sides. We can probably all agree on that. But are they always two equal sides?

Journalists are trained to always present both sides of an issue with equal weight. This works well for matters of politics. Got the Conservative? Get the Liberal. (That’s Republican and Democrat, respectively, for our American friends.) It works for policy – reporting the pros and cons of building a new bridge vs not building a new bridge. Journalistic balance is appropriate for matters which concern personal opinion, where everyone’s view is as credible as anyone else’s, and you don’t need a PhD to understand the stuff.

But what about matters of science?

Remember high school science class? Did they present both sides of absolutely every topic with equal weight? Did they say to you, “This is the evidence for and against the existence of photosynthesis. You can form your own personal opinion”? Did they do the same with Newton’s Laws, chemical reactions, or the idea of a heliocentric universe? Of course not. It would just confuse you further, and it was unnecessary as the ideas being taught were widely accepted in the scientific community.

So why should climate change be any different?

“Climate change is still being debated,” you might say. “Scientists are split over whether or not it’s happening, and whether or not we’re causing it.”

And that, my friends, is where the media comes back into the story.

Let’s hear what Ross Gelbspan has to say in his book The Heat is On.

“The professional canon of journalistic fairness requires reporters who write about a controversy to present points of view. When the issue is of a political of social nature, fairness – presenting the most compelling arguments of both sides with equal weight – is a fundamental check on biased reporting. But this canon causes problems when it is applied to the issue of science. It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of view on a scientific question as though they had equal weight, when actually they do not.”

We’ve previously discussed how there is wide agreement over the existence of anthropogenic climate change among individual scientists. Among professional scientific organizations, the numbers are even higher. As soon as you tune into the discussions of scientists, instead of only what you hear in the media, it’s clear that climate change was accepted long ago. Right now, they’re debating technicalities such as when the Arctic will be free of summer ice, how quickly feedback mechanisms will work, and how much emission reduction is necessary.

But the media hasn’t caught onto this. The media likes a controversy, and they don’t want to be accused of only presenting one side. So they present the opinions of climate scientists as 50-50, instead of the 97-3 that Doran and Zimmerman determined.

What kind of balance is this, when the fringe opinions are hugely over-represented, and the vast majority are hugely under-represented? Does that not cause more bias than we were trying to avoid?

*Further reading: Misguided “Balance” in Science Journalism by Chris Mooney*

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5 thoughts on “Artificial Balance

  1. In times as these, the critical and skeptical eye have never been so crucial. Be it now time to reward those special people in society who embrace these modes of truth seeking with the fundamental purpose of the greater good and compassion for all. Kudos to you for promoting this type of dialog and ideology.

  2. The reason journalists are desperate to present climate change as having two sides is that the actions necessary to mitigate it are all hugely political. Climate change seems to be about science, but ultimately it’s about politics – and if you disagree with the political implications then the best way to try and get rid of the problem is by casting doubt on the science.

    Plus from a media point of view, it’s far more interesting viewing or reading if you can have two sides disagreeing with each other – they love scientific controversies, especially if it has a big impact on their audience. Two physicists ‘slugging it out’ (politely :) ) over whether Einstein was right doesn’t have nearly the same interest as two medical scientists slugging it out over whether the MMR jabs are linked to autism, and climate change has an even bigger effect .

      • The only blog I have on the subject of climate change is/was a skeptical one! I have since realised that I was wrong so the blog is pretty-much dead (and I did apologise in it). You’re welcome to check it out, though. http://community.livejournal.com/co2_sceptics/5160.html

        Is it ethical? An interesting question – is anything the media does ‘ethical’? Hounding people who’ve managed to attract their attention for one reason or another, printing lies and refusing to apologise adequately (See The Sun’s despicable reporting of the Hillsborough disaster), ‘sexing-up’ everything they can because us plebs have such a short attention-span that we can’t cope with anything longer than a sound-bite. Power without responsibility is certainly true – the media set the agenda, or try their best to.

        Having said that, I don’t think it’s ethical to ban skeptical voices – aart from anything else, it feeds into the ‘conspiracy theory’ of climate change. People are skeptical for several reasons, and it’s how the science is presented that is one of those reasons. Some people will never agree – goes against their whole right-wing ideology, but others are persuadable. There was a very good BBC series last year entitled Earth: Climate Wars which did a very good job of presenting the evidence for climate change, and also the skeptics’ arguments and demolishing them (Unfortunately I missed the last episode – and it isn’t on DVD (yet – if ever))

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