image by: U.S. Geological Survey/Public Domain
Not all opinions are created equal. So why do news media so often go out of their way to place those hocking scientifically unsupported fringe beliefs on the same footing as those espousing the near unanimity of the scientific community?
Never mind so-called liberal bias. Everyone but those at the far-right end of the political spectrum smirks at the fact that propaganda machine Fox News sloganized itself as "fair and balanced."
But there is a more subtle belief about what constitutes fair and balanced discussion of serious issues that may be just as inimical as Fox News to informed public debate. It's based in what's called "due impartiality," which means doing one's best to report in a disinterested manner.
Oftentimes due impartiality is pursued by structuring reportage around the model that "there are two sides to every story." You've seen this model in action thousands of times. Broadcasting a consideration of whether same-sex marriage should be legalized? Someone makes the "pro" argument, someone else makes the "con" argument. Supposedly it's fair and balanced, because each side gets equal time.
Problem is, truth and accuracy are not always found in equal parts on opposite sides of a debate. Nowhere is such an imbalance of legitimacy more clearly on display than in the way science is sometimes discussed in a public forum.
In 2010, the British Broadcasting Company (better known as "the BBC") enlisted the help of Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College, London Steve Jones to conduct an "independent review of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage due to an ambiguity in the section on climate change."
While Jones concluded that in general the BBC's science reportage was "exemplary," he found that at times the BBC was “over-rigid” in its attempt to be impartial by giving “undue attention to marginal opinion,” by which Jones means beliefs about science that run contrary to "non-contentious" beliefs generally held in the scientific community, such as the reality of global warming and its likely causes.
"[T]wo decades ago, there was a genuine scientific debate about the reality of climate change (although that attracted rather little attention)," Jones writes. "Now, there is general agreement that warming is a fact even if there remain uncertainties about how fast, and how much, the temperature might rise. […] Where policy is concerned, the argument is far from resolved. […]That is not the case for warming itself, for the evidence is overwhelming. [… In 2008] the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s official climate change assessment forum […,] concluded that it is beyond doubt that the climate is warming and more than 90% likely that this has been driven by human activity. Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC it makes sense for [the BBC] to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently. [… Yet,] the presentational style of some coverage since  has continued to suggest that a real scientific disagreement was present long after a consensus had been reached."
The BBC Trust wholly endorsed Jones's findings, instituting an editorial shift towards giving "due weight […] to different strands of scientific argument." In other words, no more giving equal time to climate-change deniers or creationists.
"Equality of voice calls for a match of scientists not with politicians or activists, but with those qualified to take a knowledgeable, albeit perhaps divergent, view of research," Jones writes. "Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity to marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite. […] Equality of voice calls for a match of scientists not with politicians or activists, but with those qualified to take a knowledgeable, albeit perhaps divergent, view of research. Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity to marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite."
Toward the end of better balancing its science reportage by giving due weight a heavier emphasis, the BBC Trust created the position of chief science adviser for BBC News, as well establishing various training modules and seminars "with a selected panel of scientists to debate current [science] issues and their coverage in the media."
In a progress report issued last month, the BBC Trust reviewed its shift toward due weight over the last three years.
"The BBC has developed excellence in science broadcasting, and generalists who may be unfamiliar with these areas and where the weight of scientific agreement may lie should make the most of the resources of the BBC," the report states, "for example its Science Editor, the BBC’s science experts and the workshops and seminars discussed in the Executive report. Judging the weight of scientific agreement correctly will mean that the BBC avoids the ‘false balance’ between fact and opinion identified by Professor Jones."
It's a model we should hope the American media will follow, because a debate placing unsupported opinion on the same ground as well supported fact is not a healthy one.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
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