False Balance: Where ‘presenting’ a ‘balanced argument’ is not in fact balanced

Photo courtesy of theorstrahyun.blogspot.com

Photo courtesy of theorstrahyun.blogspot.com

It is often perpetuated, and in most part blatantly obvious, that the media often presents unbalanced representations, arguments and agendas. This was evident with the News Corp coverage of the 2013 Australian election. Throughout the election run-up, News Corp effectively ran their own campaign to discourage the Rudd-led ALP government (as depicted to the left).

The Media Watch video below further demonstrates this obvious unbalanced media coverage by the Murdoch Press.

http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3844761.htm

This bias effectively defeats the purpose of journalism, so why bother reporting on an issue that doesn’t inform but in fact attempts to persuade the responder?

As Ward states,

One of the common ethical principles in news reporting is that journalists cannot be both observers and participants in an event on which they are reporting… in other words, ‘avoid entangling alliances’.” (pp.14, 2009)

Ward addresses this with a simple example. If a Catholic reports about the Vatican, are they ‘entangling alliances’? and what if it was reported by an atheist? (pp.14, 2009).

Therefore it was seem vital that a journalist, or other form of informative media, should present a fair and balanced argument on an issue, addressing both sides equally. This is identified by Ward, as he claims,

…the SPJ Code of Ethics urges reporters to ‘give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid’ (pp.14, 2009)

This is logical, as it requires the reporter to not just provide a one-sided agenda, as that could jeopardise democracy (like the 2013 Australian election for example). However, has it ever occurred to you that presenting what appears to be a ‘balanced’ argument can in fact be unbalanced? Consider this with the current argument on Climate Change.

cc-infographic-final_-1250

Past and current views on Climate Change

As depicted in the info graph to the left, climate change isn’t a modern ‘invention’. Nevertheless reporters are currently balancing the debate on climate change by offering equal or disproportionate space to climate change skeptics or opinions on climate change, rather than reporting actual scientific evidence. This concept, known as false balance, is where the media presents an issue as being balanced between the two (or multiple) viewpoints, despite contradicting evidence. This is evident as Lyytimäki claims, “media publicity can highlight both true warnings and false alarms, and there is no easy way of separating these from each other.” (pp.29, 2009).

Ultimately one key problem that Lyytimäki addresses is how climate science can be a temperamental news story (pp.30, 2009). Findings have the potential of  “information overload, which also contains exaggerations, oversimplifications and misunderstandings” (pp.30, 2009). So it is understandable why a journalist may not report on scientific evidence, as it may not serve as a reliable story.

Record breakers in this year’s January.

The issue of climate change, although controversial, is fairly conclusive around the globe (The info graph to the right distinguishes this for Australia). Therefore, as Lyytimäki states, “In addition to better ecological literacy, better media literacy is also needed” (pp.32, 2009). Rather than present a ‘balanced’ argument between opinions on climate change and scientific evidence, the media should in fact educate audiences.

False balance is a very contentious concept; it not only misrepresents very important issues but journalists who are ‘entangling alliances’ are defended by their SPJ Code of Ethics to voice arguments ‘fairly’. So how do we counteract this problem? Do we, as Lyytimäki claims, enforce journalists to educate rather than ‘report fairly’? Or should we have a council that regulates false balance reporting?

Either way, perhaps now is a better time than any to question what you’re told by the media (if you haven’t already).

Sources:

Lyytimäki, J 2009, “Mulling over the climate debate: Media education on climate change”, Journal of Sustainable Development, vol. 2, no. 3.

Ward, B 2009, “Journalism ethics and climate change reporting in a period of intense media uncertainty”, Ethics Sci Environ Polit, vol. 9, pp.13-15

Media:

Murdoch Press: http://theorstrahyun.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/breaking-news-newscorp-reveals-newscorp.html

Media Watch – ‘Final Tele Tally’: http://theorstrahyun.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/breaking-news-newscorp-reveals-newscorp.html

CC is happening now: http://www.greenhomeandgarden.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/climate-change-now-tile.jpg

Record in Aus: http://staging.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/The-Angry-Summer-Map1.jpg

 

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One thought on “False Balance: Where ‘presenting’ a ‘balanced argument’ is not in fact balanced

  1. Pingback: What have I learnt so far?.. | Valid Issues No Tissues

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