I was recently informed about an anomaly within the journalistic profession. Having briefly studied journalism myself, I understood the journalistic aims for objectivity and balanced reporting. However recently a phenomenon in the media has occurred which means that by a journalist observing these aims, they may be misleading their readership.
The term ‘false balance’ has arisen from this anomaly and aims to determine how this could be so. False balance is most clearly observed through the debate on climate change. Journalists have been objective, and balanced and reported equally on those who support climate change and those who critique it. Yet, as discussed in documentary A Burning Question, 96% of scientists believe that climate change is indeed occurring and something must be done about it. There are a very small percentage of people who disagree, and many who do not have the specialised knowledge that scientists do, yet in an effort to remain fair and balanced, journalists have equally reported on the critics of the theory, giving more credibility to the theory that is does not exist than is warranted.
This is an issue as in an attempt to report on the facts, the public is becoming confused and the credibility of the arguments presented is being called in to question. Not all points of view are equally as valid. If more than 90% of experts believe, then why should the 10% that do not, received 50% of the airtime? In short, they should not. What they should receive is a proportionate percentage of coverage, appropriate to their validity and support. However, encouraging journalists to break from the traditional norms of objectivity and balance can, theoretically, lead to a slide in journalistic standards.
In order to combat the idea of false balance, a large deal of the responsibility is placed on those who do the reporting. It is up to the journalists to engage with valid and specialist stakeholders in the debates to ensure an appropriate balance is achieved. Through the case of climate change, the effect of this unbalanced reporting has lead to a lack of support for environmental reform. In this example, it must be objectivity that has to be sacrificed and, as mentioned above, the media must be responsible for accuracy of their reports. Otherwise dissent will continue to grown amongst a continually confused audience.
Boykoff, M and Boykoff, J 2007, ‘Climate change and journalistic norms: A case-study of US mass-media coverage’, Geoforum, vol. 38, no.6, pp 1190-1204.
EPAIredland 2010, A Burning Question, accessed 19/5/2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUPpWBCAy_o