In a December 8 commentary on Minnesota Public Radio’s online news site, Haddayr Copley-Woods, a journalist and blogger posed the question, “Why do media report 'the other side' of scientific fact?”
This practice of giving equal weight to a source who is factually incorrect is called “false balance,” and has been discussed thoroughly by both journalists and scholars, so it may seem like old news to be talking about it now. Yet, as Woods writes, the message still hasn't made it through. Reporters still give equal weight to sources who are known global warming deniers, even though it is a fact that human-caused global warming exists. During this fall and winter flu season, numerous reports have appeared botching the science on vaccines by giving voice to fact-less sources who say vaccines are dangerous though science has proved they are not.
While science is foremost a process, a method of questioning and testing the world around us, there are some instances of what we might call scientific surety--evidence beyond a doubt that the earth revolves around the sun, that water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one of oxygen, that so far there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, that high-fat diets often contribute to health problems later in life, that Earth’s temperature is increasing at a rate above natural variation and this increase is related to human activity.
Often, critics of science stories on hot-button or politicized issues argue that a story is “biased” or that it isn’t “balanced” enough. But where science is concerned, bias in favor of facts is not really bias. Science blogger Phil Plat puts it well in a recent post, saying “People say I’m biased, which may be a fair cop. I am biased: to reality.”
And in stories where one side represents a known fact, and the other represents a unproven hypothesis (psychic powers for example), giving them equal face time does not create “balance”; it actually distorts balance, and can even create harm. “When was it written into journalistic theory that each story has two equally legitimate sides? When did fact-checking become too odious?” Woods writes. As she suggests, in many cases a quick fact check is usually all it takes to reveal when one source has facts on their side and the other does not.
Woods’ frustration seems to stem largely from a slew of recent vaccine stories. The science is clear: that vaccines are exponentially safer than the diseases they prevent, and that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet stories still feature “counter-arguments” and sources giving the opposite view even though that view is factually false. Woods writes,
Because people all react differently to vaccines, my fully vaccinated kids could still come down with polio if someone else's unvaccinated children exposed them to it. Babies who have not completed their vaccinations are particularly at risk of dying from measles and mumps.
Perhaps parents wouldn't be so easily misled if more reporters actually did some hard-nosed reporting on this and other scientific topics.
But what I mainly see and hear are vapid point/counterpoints in which the real scientist becomes more and more frustrated with the evangelist, or the writer uncritically reports a totally unsubstantiated claim made by a celebrity like Jenny McCarthy -- who got her "doctorate from Google" (her words, not mine) -- with no follow-up or refutation.
A few pieces StinkyJournalism published recently also highlight this kind of “other side” of vaccine science reporting. And as we've written before, false balance also continues to pop up in stories reporting things as extreme as the “other side” of the scientific fact that psychic healing can’t cure cancer.
Clearly, no matter how many times this is said, some journalists somewhere continue to make the mistake. So while Woods’ frustration isn’t new, it will remain relevant until the news profession is able to step up its ability to vet and contextualize accepted science.
Read the Woods' editorial in full here.