Thoughts on (false?) balance

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.


10 thoughts on “Thoughts on (false?) balance

  1. Sine you’ve commented on my blog, I’ll return the favour (or, maybe, you won’t see it that way 🙂 )

    You say,

    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.

    Okay, so I agree with this in principle. But let me make a slight extension. There are probably many contentious and societally relevant areas (vaccinations, GMO, climate change). So in all those areas one might imagine broadcasters trying – quite rightly – to present different views because of the societal relevance.

    However, there would typically be a time when the scientific evidence becomes stronger for one view than for another. Now, you wouldn’t expect broadcasters to instantly drop the alternative views, but you might – quite reasonably – see those who understand the subject starting to criticse how broadcasters are presenting this information. The boradcasters may not respond initially, but you would hope – over time – that they would start to recognise which arguments have more validity than others.

    So, I agree with you that broadcasters have some obligation to present all societally relevant arguments to their viewers/listeners, but I see no problem with others pointing out that one side of the argument has much stronger evidence than the other. In my opinion, broadcasters also have an obligation to present things as accurately and honestly as possible. That doesn’t mean that they should instantly stop presenting the other arguments but one might hope that as it becomes clearer that the arguments on one side are much stronger than the other, you would see a shift in how broadcasters present the subject. If noone bothered highlighting this to broadcasters, how would they realise that they’re presenting a false balance?

  2. Yes, one might hope. I think the research suggests that the majority view (just to give it a name) still gets the majority of minutes (over a longer period, not necessarily in every broadcast-segment).

    Anyway, I am not sure it really is about the strength of the argument. As said above, it might not be about the scientific relevance of a point but about the societal relevance of a position.

    Additionally it’s about the genre (format, style, type) of program. If it was about science, … then it should be about science. If it was a debate about a topic where science is only one component, then it might be more important that the relevant positions in society are represented than that the presented science is accurate.

    Let’s consider just as an example the dredging of rivers as a measure against flooding. As far as I understand it the scientific position is robust. A research-format would present the science. A debate would probably nevertheless have to consider the thoughts of diverse (of course well informed) political positions and the concerns of the flood-plain residents and other interested groups (e.g. farmer).

    Alternatively consider a series of questions: How do climate models work? How good are climate models? Are climate models good enough to inform politics? How does CO2 influence the global energy balance? How established is the effect of CO2 on the global energy balance? How much has the global surface temperature increased over a certain time? How much of that is because of anthropogenic CO2? How much is the global surface temperature going to increase until 2100? What is the merit of climate skepticism? Do you think, dear listener, that there is a reason to be sceptic about climate skepticism? Do you think, dear listener, that there is a reason to be sceptic about the messages associated with the science of anthropogenic global warming?

    Which questions should only be discussed by experienced climate scientists?

    Being more hypothetical: At which point should one stop considering a societal position in a debate, on a panel? When it appears that only 1, 10, 25, 33, 40, 49% of society consider it valid? Does that depend on whether it is scientifically defendable? Does it depend on whether there is a scientific consensus on the topic? Does it depend on whether there is a social consensus that the position is wrong?

    I have no answers.

  3. Yes, I have no answers either. Certainly, my post was simply me expressing an opinion about what I would prefer in a situation where a media outlet was reporting science. So, in the examples you give, I agree that media outlets will likelty – and quite rightly – report on views that may not be supported by the evidence, but that are still views that are held by people who are influenced by the situation being considered. So, yes, I agree that a media outlet may quite justifiably report this. However, I would still assert, that even though we might all understand why a media outlet might choose to report something, we might all agree that they had the right to do so and were right to do so, we might also decide to point out that they expressed views that were not consistent with the best evidence available.

    So, I guess the argument I’m making, is that simply because a media outlet has the right to do something and was probably justified in doing so, does not immediately imply that someone shouldn’t also point out that they presented a false balance. I guess I see it a bit like a feedback loop. The media will have their reasons for doing something one way. Scientists, for example, might have preferred them to do it a different way. They may never reach agreement, but at least there might be a bit of give and take and maybe – over time – things will evolve. It’ll probably never be perfect (and we probably couldn’t agree on a definition of perfect) but it may get better.

    Anyway, I agree with much of what you say but reserve the right to express an opinion about how it might be better. Of course, I may well be wrong 🙂

  4. Yes.

    To stress once more an important thing to keep in mind (IMO): the assumptions of a broadcaster about what is a relevant position are not dictated or may even be completely independent from what science regards relevant. Scientific relevance might be but isn’t necessarily a criterion – and that’s fine (in a way).

  5. “This may lead to false balancing in certain cases but on average the right balance is likely preserved (as research suggests).”

    Hmm, my strong impression is that the research suggest quite otherwise, manufactured doubt leading to reduced support for action. This recent book seems to summarize things well. What research are you pointing to?

  6. Grundmann and Scott for example.

    Manufactured doubt may even exist if coverage isn’t falsely balanced.

    Point is: marginalizing different and even wrong opinions in non-science programs is not necessarily desirable.

    I also think that (awareness of) a consensus is not a prerequisite for action and I am even not sure whether it makes action significantly more likely.

  7. I don’t take G&S (2012) as meaning what you seem to take it to mean, the basic point being that inaction always has the upper hand in politics and that the doubt leading to public lack of support for action requires very little exposure to gain traction. I think the body of research I pointed to has demonstrated that point thoroughly.

    Re non-science programs, sure, but the moment they start talking about science thy’re not non-science programs any more.

    Re consensus, there’s research supporting the perception of it (or lack thereof) as important. See SkS for references.

    But overall, I think the main problem with the media is the very strong implied message of the small quantity and minimal prominence of climate change coverage.

  8. From G&S (2012), I want to highlight:

    “A second theoretical perspective is offered by path dependency analysis. In this approach, early events in a chain of events are crucial for the further development (David 1985, Goldstone 1998).”

    I missed this reference on my first read of the paper some time ago, but it sounds very much worth knowing about in more detail. I take the context in which G&S discuss it as meaning that the relative prominence of contrarian coverage in the US early on set the stage in ways that continue to resonate.

  9. Yes, I may have misread or mis-remembered G&S.

    “This may lead to false balancing in certain cases but on average the right balance is likely preserved (as research suggests).” What I meant is: Over a certain time period and the bulk of a medium there is generally not a false balance. And I repeat once more: It is not about the scientific relevance of a position, but about the relevance of a position in society. That is, yes, what you may call ‘contrarian voices’ feature in the media and one could say they shouldn’t, but they generally do not outweigh the ‘consensus’ plus what some may call ‘alarmist voices’.

    Re non-science: I disagree. There are topics where science is only one component.

    Re consensus: Yes I’m aware of it. Yes it can be important. However, I am still unconvinced that it is (as said above) a prerequisite or has a significant effect on the implementation of actions.

    Re: media. I strongly disagree 😉 . My impression is (but only from the www-sites of media outlets) that climate change features prominently enough. However, the coverage on climate change does not frame it enough as a task for society and does not stimulate discussion.

    The Gallup polls suggest for the US that a good percentage thinks news coverage of CC is exaggerated. Could this be a hint that the coverage is biased towards discussing the ‘threats’ but not the solutions. Possibly the latter aren’t ‘sexy’ enough?

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