February 2, 2013

‘Fair And Balanced’ Means A False Equivalency

As someone who mostly writes about science for redOrbit, I cover a fair amount of climate change stories. That’s why something that New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan recently said on Morning Joe really caught my attention.

Sullivan has been writing recently about a false equivalency, or the desire for reporters to give both sides of a story equal weight — notably when writing about topics that can be controversial. She said most of the time, a balanced approach is warranted, but sometimes giving too much weight to one side can get in the way of telling a story.

“One of the places it comes up a lot is around climate change, because there are different opinions about (it),” she told the panel on the popular MSNBC morning show. “But there’s also a recognition, more and more, that there is some factual stuff that you can simply say as being true and you don’t always have to say, ‘but on the other side, you know, there’s the outliers who think this.’ So that’s one place where it really has arisen.”

For example, if a reporter is writing about a fact-based, scientific study, he or she may need to put a caveat before each statement — as in ‘according to scientists, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.’

Everyone accepts carbon dioxide traps heat energy within the Earth’s atmosphere, well maybe not everyone. I’m sure a search through the darker corners of the Internet would reveal some folks that just don’t believe carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Sullivan’s point is should reporters cater to these people who deny something we were all taught in 8th grade science class?

And it’s not only climate change. Should every story on the origin of the universe or the evolution of species give some consideration to the beliefs of creationists? It’s easy to see how the desire to write a ‘fair and balanced’ story can quickly take your head down a rabbit hole where you begin to doubt everything you’ve ever been taught in school.

Social media hasn’t helped this problem. If anything, Facebook has taught me that some of my closest friends have some quirky beliefs. Or maybe they’re just quirky to me…

Back in journalism class, they taught us two sayings, “Trust, but verify” and “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

These phrases were meant to instill in us a healthy dose of skepticism. The idea was, if a source tells you something, don’t go on just their word alone. Check it out. Perhaps if a few sports reporters had been more skeptical, Manti T’eo wouldn’t have been about to convince every media outlet that his girlfriend and grandmother had died on the same day.

However, skepticism can be taken to varying degrees. And that applies to everyone from the reporter to the reader. News outlets are supposed to give both sides of a story, and impartiality is an important part of the media landscape. But at the end of the day, it still has got to be about the story. A story filled with qualifiers, caveats, and scare quotes would be unreadable, to some.

Image Credit: Oliver Klimek / Shutterstock

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Brett Smith is a freelance journalist from Buffalo, NY. When not writing about science, medicine or other newsworthy topics, he enjoys Upstate New York by camping and hiking in the summers and snowboarding in the winters. Like most Buffalonians, he eats chicken wings year round.

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