False Balance


False balance describes the journalistic practice of presenting both sides of an argument whether or not there needs to be two sides to the story. The most obvious and heinous example of this is the false balance that the media presented climate change until very recently. Despite 97% of climate scientists agreeing that human-made climate change is happening and is real, most media presented this as a debate rather than the scientific consensus. This also happened with vaccines, with all the evidence and all the medical professionals agreeing that vaccines were safe and essential for the vast majority of people. The media presented the idea that there was some risk when discussing the issue.

There was a report commissioned by Imperial College London 8 years ago by Prof. Steve Jones (a geneticist and broadcaster) about science reporting on the BBC. Jones concluded that the BBC was presenting stories with false balance and that they needed to take measures to improve their science reporting. The report concluded that there wasn’t enough distinction given between facts and opinions, giving legitimacy to fringe beliefs. The BBC is a trusted and respected source of information for many people in the UK (and around the world) so they have a greater responsibility to be as rigorous as possible in their reporting - although we know for some that may seem difficult at the moment.

This false balance has long been an issue in science reporting. This could just be a consequences of market forces. Media is encouraged to give more air time to unusual and controversial stories. This gives those stories more prominence and distorts perception of the media consumers. This is the case for all reporting as sensationalism sells. This could explain why a lot of people are more scared of being killed by a shark/terrorist/(insert own overblown fear) than heart disease, even though they are statistically in greater peril from boring old heart disease. This false balance is dangerous for public perception. There’s a great book called Fear by Dan Gardiner about how this media reporting has impacted what the public is afraid of and how rational the things they are frightened of are.