False equivalence is the scourge of modern journalism.
This is the practice of “he said, she said”, in which inappropriate weight is given to one side.
Equivalence is well-intentioned: it creates balance in a story. But it’s gone too far.
That august organ, the BBC, has fallen foul of its regulator for an,“over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality which sought to give the other side of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed”, especially in its climate change coverage.
Let me put that in layperson’s terms: Stop giving air time to cranks.
For too long, the opinions of climate sceptics have been given too much weight.
*Ian Plimer: The man who says anthropogenic climate change is a myth is the director of multiple mining companies. He is NOT a climate scientist.
*Bob Carter: A long-standing climate change denier, Carter is on the payroll of the Heartland Institute, funded by politically conservative foundations and oil companies. He is NOT a climate scientist.
*Christopher Monckton (right): The world’s most high-profile sceptic is a journalist, NOT a climate scientist.
Professor of Media at Macquarie University, Catharine Lumby, says the promotion of Lord Monckton by some outlets makes “a mockery of journalism”.
“‘Putting the other side’ of some stories is often a veil for promoting misinformation to support an ideological prejudice,” she says.
But there’s something even more nefarious than a debate in which one participant is clearly coco-loco.
That’s the use of the phrase, “Climate change sceptics believe….”, without naming them.
Climatologist Joe Romm has blasted Reuters for this: “Who are these hardcore climate science-denying scientists who reject even the most basic physics? We are never told.”
He says, at the time the piece was written, Reuters’ deputy editor-in-chief was Paul Ingrassia – a known sceptic.
This tactic is used frequently in The Australian newspaper and on Radio 2GB (notably in smoking stories).
News consumers are frustrated by increasing perversions of the truth, as evidenced by letters to the editor in the New York Times.
In order to pacify readers, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan writes, “In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth, or equating two things that aren’t equal”.
So why aren’t we having the debate here?
For decades, false balance on the issue of vaccination led to a dangerous reduction in herd immunity.
The voices of a radical minority – who fallaciously linked immunisation to autism – were given equal weight to those of doctors and scientists.
I tackled this during a radio interview with Meryl Dorey, who led the misleadingly-named Australian Vaccination Network.
As journalists, we should disseminate the truth: not propagate lies.
Another form of false equivalence inflates the importance of public opinion polls.
Here’s an example: “According to Newspoll, x% of Australians believe offshore detention will deter asylum seekers from arriving by boat. But research conducted by the United Nations reveals ‘push’ factors are more powerful than ‘pull’ factors.”
The problem? The same weight is given to public, and expert, opinion.
As Senior Lecturer and Journalism Undergraduate Coordinator at UTS, Jenna Price, puts it, “Not everyone has the right to weigh in on a particular subject because not everyone has equal expertise”.
She points to a piece on The Conversation website by Philosophy Lecturer at Deakin University, Patrick Stokes, entitled, “No, You’re Not Entitled To Your Opinion”.
That phrase is “used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned,” he contends.
Using such opinions is lazy journalism – and it’s everywhere.
Bravo Father Rod for calling it out on a billboard in front of the Anglican Church in Gosford.
On the Facebook page, he writes: “Some journalists are setting up a false equivalent between the numbers who drowned at sea coming to Australia by boat and the death of a man on Manus Island. This is designed to make us think that the current policy is more humane than the former. We do not want people drowning; neither do we want people in concentration camps indefinitely. These are equivalent only in that both are unacceptable.”
You’ll also see it in finance stories, particularly on panel shows. Who do you believe: the boring economist or the entertaining commentator?
In the US, this imbalance has led to the absurd assumption that the deficit is growing when it’s actually falling.
Perhaps – like the BBC – all media outlets need to do an audit of false equivalence.
“Nearly 200 senior staff have attended workshops which set out that impartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, but depends on the varying degree of prominence (due weight) such views should be given,” according to the report by the BBC Trust.
Somehow, I can’t see it happening here.
Because “he said, she said” journalism is cheap; it rates; and they don’t really care what we think.
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book, The Elements of Journalism, “Balance, if it amounts to false balance, becomes distortion.”
*Tracey Spicer’s 25 year career spans television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and online media. She has anchored news, current affairs and lifestyle programs in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Currently, Tracey works as an anchor for Sky News, weekly columnist for Fairfax Media and The Hoopla, radio broadcaster, and presentation trainer at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.
She is best known for presenting Channel 10’s national weekend and morning news services for 14 years. Tracey has written, produced and presented documentaries for NGOs in Bangladesh, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and India, and the National Breast Cancer Foundation in Australia. The mother-of-two is an Ambassador for ActionAid, World Vision, Life’s Little Treasures, Karitane, and Dying with Dignity, Patron of the NSW Cancer Council and the National Premmie Foundation, and face of the Garvan Institute’s research into pancreatic cancer. The 46-year-old is the convenor of Women in Media, a mentoring and networking group, backed by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Visit Tracey’s website at www.spicercommunications.biz or follow her on Twitter @spicertracey.