The Illusion of Balance

The founding fathers of the United States of America wrote freedom of the press into the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights. As their own quotes and records show, they did this because they felt that a free, independent press was one of the most vital checks on the power of government, and the only way to impart to ordinary citizens the information they need to be responsible decision-makers in a democracy such as ours.

In the United States of America today, the press has failed that trust.

Much could be written, and has been written, about the way that the press has steadily become more and more deeply intertwined with the rich and the powerful, until their interests align with those entrenched powers and not with the common people they are supposed to be informing. Much could be written about the way in which the press credulously accepted the current administration’s rationales for war without asking the questions that would have exposed their fraud. Much could be written about their preference for sensationalism and spectacle over facts and context. However, in this post, I intend to discuss a more insidious and possibly even more pernicious tendency of the modern establishment media: their widespread belief that every point of view they present, no matter how qualified or well-respected, must be “balanced” by presenting the opposing view on equal terms, and that no point of view must ever be called wrong, discredited, or unsupported by the evidence.

Here is an instructive example from the April 1999 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cancer therapy pained her family…and didn’t work. The article concerns the sad story of an area woman who died of breast cancer at the age of 39 after refusing effective, conventional medical treatment in favor of implausible, ineffective, and scientifically unsupported “alternative” therapies:

Davis… adopted a rigorous 13-hour-a-day treatment plan called Gerson Therapy. The therapy – based on a combination of diet, exercise and coffee enemas – is controversial. Doctors in California warned Davis against relying exclusively on the alternative treatments.

“Controversial”? The only thing this article could find to say about therapy that involved treating malignant breast cancer by receiving coffee enemas and eating a pound of carrots per day is that it is “controversial”? I will say what this paper would not: such a treatment blatantly ignores everything we know about how cancer is caused and how it can be cured; is utterly unsupported by any scientific evidence; is advocated only by quacks; and may well end up costing the lives of any people who rely on it exclusively, as this poor woman did, because it does not work. Although the title of this article, at least, points out the failure of this treatment in the specific case, the article itself studiously avoids commitment to a general conclusion, instead seeking refuge in the limp label “controversial”.

I have experienced the effects of this policy for myself. On one occasion last year, I read an article in my local newspaper credulously touting a chiropractic back massager that was claimed to be able to treat carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma, among other conditions. This article did not provide even a shred of skeptical balance, and aside from promoting these quack notions, added nonsensical claims such as that this technology was used by NASA to test the integrity of heat-resistant tiles on spacecraft (and that has what to do with curing asthma, exactly?).

I wrote to the reporter to complain, and she responded in a way that made it clear she had no idea what the problem was. Her response basically boiled down to saying that there was a “controversy” among doctors as to whether back-adjustment techniques worked for treating problems that have nothing to do with the back, it wasn’t proven that this device was not efficacious, and how did I really know it didn’t work, anyway? In this case, not only did the illusion of balance give undeserved attention to quackery, it served as a convenient excuse for a reporter who had no knowledge of medical science to write about this device without having to go to the trouble to check up on its claims for herself.

As with many evils, the road to this particular hell was paved with good intentions. This illusion of balance arose from a desire for journalistic integrity and objectivity, to ensure that readers had a chance to view all sides of an argument so that they could decide for themselves. This, in and of itself, is a noble goal. The problem is that journalists are being taught that their articles must be balanced even when the facts are not balanced. The result is a situation where objectivity is taken to its most ludicrous extreme, where all points of view must be treated as equally valid regardless of whether that is what the evidence supports.

Other observers have noticed this trend. For example, former vice president Al Gore lambasted the media’s surrender to spin in a 2001 lecture series at Columbia’s journalism school:

Gore’s first lecture engaged objectivity itself, challenging the journalistic trope that fairness resides in controversy and an article has to represent all sides — no matter how marginal — equally. Instead, Gore argued that the journalistic impulse to exalt even the most fringe views to parity in order to furnish opposing perspectives is harmful to basic accuracy. This didn’t sit well with more than a few of the wannabe reporters in the class, many of whom were aghast at the suggestion that the media should attempt to actually mediate between truth and spin.

And Chris Mooney, himself a reporter (but one of the good ones!), writes in his book The Republican War on Science about a 2004 paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change. Despite a broad consensus among practicing climate scientists that global warming is real and is caused by human activity, this study surveyed over 600 articles published in several major newspapers between 1988 and 2002 and found that over 50% gave equal credence to the industry view that global warming is simply the result of natural climate fluctuations (a conclusion, by the by, that is not supported by any peer-reviewed publications). Nowhere could the illusion of balance be more obvious.

This lazy and credulous reporting harms society at large because it deprives people of the context they need to make an informed decision. There are many groups who do not need to prevail outright in public debate, but can achieve their goals simply by muddying the waters and creating a widespread perception of controversy and confusion: for example, creationists who call for “teaching the controversy”, or industry groups, such as tobacco companies or petroleum lobbies, seeking to avoid regulation by asserting that the evidence is not strong enough to support action. In seeking to create “balance”, the media has played right into their hands. As Mooney puts it, “many journalists reporting on science issues fall easy prey to sophisticated public relations campaigns” (p.252).

What will it take to cut through this illusion of balance and restore true objectivity that pays heed to facts and not just to opinions? It will require reporters to know something about their subject matter and evaluate the evidence in order to draw an informed and accurate conclusion, rather than taking the lazy route of pasting together quotes from two opposing sides into a context-free and uninformative “he said/she said”-type article. It will require reporters to identify minority opinions as such and mainstream opinions as such, to contrast views that attract scientific support with those that do not, and to accurately convey to their readers what the state of the art is and what consensus has been reached by qualified experts. It will require reporters to inform their readers when there is a genuine controversy over some issue and when there is nothing but a phony controversy drummed up by ideologues and zealots. In short, it will take a media whose aim is truly to get at the heart of a matter and find the truth, not the complacent and detached media we have today that is content to uncritically repeat spin. There are already some good reporters out there, true journalists who are not afraid to tell it like it is – we can hope that the rest will in time learn to follow their example.

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