Balance in journalism

2012-03-15 13:16

NPR has some new standards up, which “clarify” the way in which they pursue balance.

This is a hot issue, because “balance” in the US has frequently been understood to mean “if there is a strong debate, give equal time to both proponents”.

Jon Stewart covered this brilliantly in an interview with a man who believed the Large Hadron Collider had a 50% chance of destroying the world. His argument: Either it’ll happen or it won’t, right? So 50-50. Stewart’s response was roughly “and if only the two of us survive, let’s have sex so we can repopulate the planet; we have a 50% chance of getting pregnant, because either it’ll happen or it won’t.”

And that’s the problem, really. Sometimes, the two sides of a controversy are not seriously comparable. Consider, for instance, the serious scientific controversy over whether cigarettes are dangerous. On the one side, you have a number of scientists in the employ of tobacco companies; on the other side you have pretty much everyone else.

The “controversy” over evolution was explored quite effectively by Project Steve, which points out that, for all that creationists claim there are “many” scientists who doubt basic modern biology, there are more scientists named Steve who don’t. Many more.

Anthropogenic climate change is another of these now; there were certainly times when there was room for doubting that humans were affecting the planet’s climate, but those times are a while behind us now. Now, the big money is in trying to make this look like a major point of dispute. In fact, there are certainly real questions on which there is dispute; for instance, what if anything could be done, what we should do, what our alternatives are… But the underlying question of whether there’s significant human influence on climate? Long settled.

Other topics might include, say, whether vaccines cause autism (no), whether vaccines are dangerous and should be avoided (no), and so on.

And the fact is, part of the reason these issues linger on, causing billions to trillions of dollars in harm and millions of needless and easily avoided deaths, is because news media are afraid to acknowledge that, while there are indeed two sides of this, one of them is a small number of kooks, crackpots, and liars who have a financial interest in creating uncertainty.

Similarly, consider the importance of presenting both sides of the controversy over whether women should be forcibly raped with a ten inch plastic device before they can have an abortion. I mean, on the one hand, you have basically everyone who has ever practiced in the field of women’s health, and pretty much every woman of childbearing age, everyone who has daughters of childbearing age, and so on. On the other hand you have a small number of middle-aged men who think that women who have sex are sluts. Surely, this requires a nuanced presentation in which we show both sides in the best possible light?

And no, it doesn’t. There is a distinction between equal opportunities and equal outcomes, and while I am all for providing some basic guarantees of health and food to poor people, I am not so much in favor of providing basic guarantees of legislation and popular support to poor ideas. Quite frankly, it is okay by me if bad ideas die out, alone and unloved. They are not people; they are things. They do not deserve the rights we extend to people. They particularly do not deserve to have their rights at the expense of the rights of people.

The Duck is a good illustration of the problem.

Peter Seebach




  1. Disclaimer – I promise I’m not a stalker, I just enjoyed your comments on the Rift forums and found my way to your blog and the wonderful Helpy. I really enjoy all your writing!

    I noticed you on Slashdot as well in a Rift-themed article a while back, and was wondering if you’d seen yet the story posted about the verdict in the case against Dharun Ravi ( I’m very glad the verdict came out as it did, but I felt like I was insane when I started reading the comments there. I am very curious about your thoughts on the whole thing, especially after being surprised by the general sentiments and modding expressed on Slashdot.

    — Tegan · 2012-03-16 14:52 · #

  2. Thanks for the link, I commented.

    seebs · 2012-03-16 15:34 · #

  3. Thanks for the insight and for being another voice of reason!

    — Tegan · 2012-03-19 13:05 · #