Avoiding false balance is not bias

false balance refers to “the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side.” Fair balance can often end up being counteractive to giving accurate coverage by painting two viewpoints as equally popular even when that it not the case. Illustration by Anna Iorfino/The Daily Campus.

I know I tend to write a more introspective, personal anecdote-based column. Believe me, that’s my favorite niche to write about, and as I’ve repeatedly mentioned, there is value to talking about shared experiences as I normally do. However, I also maintain that “Inside Maddie’s Mind” functions first and foremost as a public journal detailing what I’ve been thinking about recently. Really, it allows me flexibility and eases the issue of coming up with an opinion to write about each week. And thus, this week, we’ll get a little less self-contained. 

Alright, enough stalling, it’s time to dive into it. I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing about false balance for a while. At least within journalism circles, there’s a bit of a debate surrounding it, especially within the past decade. As an aspiring journalist myself, I’ve certainly got my own thoughts on the matter. 

In this context, false balance refers to “the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side.” In other words, the issue “arises when journalists present opposing view-points as being more equal than the evidence allows.” 

A simple example of this is climate change coverage. Sometimes, writers present the issue as equally balanced between climate activists or scientists studying such human impacts on the planet, and climate change deniers. Often, in efforts to be “fair,” these viewpoints end up equated, when in reality, the heaviest weight of evidence certainly falls to one side

In this example, the false balance coverage — also known as the “bothsidesism” issue — has lessened, at least in my experiences. I don’t see as many news articles nowadays covering climate change and giving credence to climate change deniers, though it certainly still happens to some extent. As I’ve recently found, the journalists and the mainstream media in general are more willing to cover climate change as they should: as an objective fact or a crisis currently occurring, rather than something that could be reasonably doubted. This is a step in the right direction, but climate change is not the only topic that “bothsidesism” can impact coverage. 

The further extent of the issue of false balance is that while media consumers may view an article that deliberately avoids false balance as biased coverage, this is the exact opposite of what’s really occurring. Following the climate change example, putting more weight on the “climate change is real” side of the story — though it is true — can come across as only portraying one aspect of an issue when, to those less tuned-in to the climate crisis, there seems to be multiple valid viewpoints. However, the reality is that these opposing “sides” to the story are not equivalent to begin with. It’s therefore false balance itself that is a bias, and something we as journalists should work to avoid, despite its difficulty. 

Objectivity is a pretty big tenet of journalism — Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, anyone? This is important, as biased coverage can do more harm than good (and another tenet of journalism is minimizing harm). We need to be as objective as possible. 

But giving equal weight in stories to things that are, at this point, objectively false, as with the climate change denial example, is not the same as true objectivity. Yes, this is a tricky line to walk in general — if “tricky” isn’t too childish of a word to describe the difficulty of upholding one of the most difficult standards of traditional journalism, even beyond the false balance issue. As a journalist, it can be uncomfortable to remain neutral in circumstances of injustice. Moreover, all journalists themselves are inherently biased to some degree by their own personal experiences that, while it is possible to minimize their effects, still impact their writing at a (hopefully) small level. It’s not a foolproof model, but objectivity should still be something to strive for, especially given the high levels of public distrust in the media. 

But if we want to do what we set out to do in the first place, to seek the truth and report it, we need to avoid false balance. And as consumers of news media as well, we need to be aware of what false balance is, and recognize that lack of it is in fact, an inherently good thing. 

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