This post is obviously motivated by this blog post and the comment-thread moving too fast for me to comment on topic. I write of course from the experience of the German media, so the Nolan-show only features as the peg to hang this post on.
Using this peg, let’s start with a look at the editorial values of the BBC which state that (in the following “We” is the BBC):
…we are independent, impartial and honest. We … strive to avoid knowingly and materially misleading our audiences.
…Accuracy is not simply a matter of getting facts right; when necessary, we will weigh relevant facts and information to get at the truth. Our output, as appropriate to its subject and nature, will be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested …. We will strive to be honest and open about what we don’t know and avoid unfounded speculation.
…Impartiality lies at the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. We will apply due impartiality to all our subject matter and will reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion across our output as a whole, over an appropriate period, so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented. We will be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts.
…We seek to report stories of significance to our audiences. We will be rigorous in establishing the truth of the story and well informed when explaining it. …
I guess that’s true for most public service broadcasters so also in Germany. The main thread of the German broadcasting mission/mandate (“Programmauftrag”) is along the lines of Information, Education and Entertainment with overarching themes of “balance” (I would assume including impartiality) and “truth”.
It could be argued that above quoted editorial values (or similar) are violated by interviewing someone who presents opinions which may represent scientific marginality or letting this person take part in a debate. If I listen to a radio program on research, I expect that it presents a reliable picture of the current state of knowledge. I have to extend on that: if it reports some controversial findings it should counter them by presenting the more “mainstream” view. If the program is a “topical debate” or about such a debate, I cannot uphold this expectation.
Why do I think so?
The quotes above suggest a problem. What does journalism do, when there is no truth. It is not meant to interpret, it is supposed not to deduct and not to lead the listener/viewer/reader. Journalists are not meant to say what’s right or wrong. The criterion for balance possibly is how relevant are the different positions to the public. The criterion is not how relevant it is in science. Thus, if there is a relevant proportion of the public for which a certain position is of interest, it makes sense to present it. If it’s a controversial position, it should require to present a balancing view. This may lead to false balancing in certain cases but on average the right balance is likely preserved (as research suggests). The relevance for the public is even more important for topics where science/research is only one actor and other societal actors take a stance which may be independent of science and rely more on values and interests of a societal group. So a journalistic enterprise especially a public service broadcaster cannot or at least should not ignore persons or positions of societal relevance. It’s not about how you or I or the journalist wants society to be, but about how the positions are.
I am not a friend of lobbying as it is done in German politics nowadays (and I guess in most western countries), however, a balanced “lobbying” for the interests of different societal groups probably safeguards relative fairness in society.