There’s an interesting debate from fisheries scientists in the United States, and it’s over a concept that may well become common in the journalism of the future.
The concept? False balance — in other words, giving equal weight to both sides of an argument, even when one side is actually weaker or even false.
For the fish scientists, this particular debate is over the health of a variety of hammerhead sharks. Fisheries research quite clearly shows that the sharks are in decline — precipitous decline — and suggests that the species should be protected.
A news story on the health of the species, and its potential protection, said exactly that.
But that’s not all it said.
On the other side of the argument, a representative of the fishing industry was quoted as saying, essentially, that he fishes all the time, and that as far as he can see, hammerhead stocks are doing just fine.
The two sides of the argument were presented as having equal weight, with equal prominence for both sides of the argument.
In recent fisheries blog postings and websites, that’s made for quite a stir. The consensus seems to be that, while on-the-ground knowledge by fishermen is important, it can’t simply be classed as having every bit as much validity as thorough, scholarly research. (Sound familiar? Just like every Newfoundland fisheries stock debate ever.)
Leaving aside the nature/nurture argument — i.e., what’s more valuable, research or experience — the whole question of false balance is worth paying attention to, because addressing it puts reporters in a whole new role.
It’s one thing for an editorial writer or a columnist to choose a position in an opinion piece (like this one).
It’s quite another for a reporter to have to decide to give one side of an argument more weight because, well, it actually has more value. Consider, for example, the debates over global warming and whether common vaccines cause autism.
The problems of fair balance were evident in the last U.S. presidential election, too. Striving to be fair, reporters regularly asked both Republicans and Democrats about issues when they arose, trying to give both parties equal space.
The problem was, party operatives recognized the effort, and simply manufactured their own positions, knowing that they’d get equal play even if their arguments were spurious or false.
In an effort to be objective, journalists ended up skewing the debate with inaccurate information — inaccurate information that often wasn’t caught until the election was over and the votes counted.
All in all, it puts a new burden on reporters trying to cover a story: not only do they have to ask if they are giving fair comment in a story, even to a side of the debate they might not personally agree with, but they also have to test the quality of the information they’re getting, and weigh what deserves to have equal or similar credibility.
I’m sure that a reporter covering a story on hammerhead sharks would feel that they had covered all the bases by interviewing the scientists involved and the fishermen affected. Perhaps he or she didn’t stop to wonder just who actually knew what it was they were talking about.
In the modern world of smaller newsrooms and faster turnarounds for the web and every other kind of instant news, it’s easy to accept that there’s little more they can be expected to do. It sure doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be trying.
The news media has often been described as the first draft of history; inherent in that description is the idea that it is imperfect, and that future versions will have revisions that remove some of the latent flaws in fast and furious reporting.
But it’s not so much the first draft anymore as it is the quickie notes you jot down when you’re starting history.
And knowing that, there are plenty of people willing to spin journalists — and try to spin journalists’ stories — to reach their own ends.
Scales are simple. You can’t really have balance until you’ve decided what the respective weights of things are. And that takes extra time and work.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.