Balanced Journalism

I think we’re suffering from a wave of cheap, soundbite-driven, research-avoiding journalism hiding behind being “balanced”. Balance is a great tool to make a story more neutral. You not only give a voice to the critic, but also to the criticized. Both have the chance to make an argument and the audience can decide for themselves which side to take.

But apply this principle to a “politician A said X” story and you end up with a mere sequence of opinions. I dare to say, of n contradicting opinions, roughly n-1 tend to disagree with science. So congratulations, you just wasted the audiences’ time on unchecked opinions.

Politicians know they will get away with saying every ideological rubbish they could imagine on technical issues. But beware of the issues that don’t require researching facts to ridicule what they just said. If they don’t know the price of milk, they will be hunted down by the media for being “out of touch”.

So please! Next time you run into a claim by one side and you think about just adding the other side’s opinion and call it a day, consider seeing the current state of science as the opposition.

Humanity’s best attempt at finding the truth, always has to be the opposition to opinions. Another opinion is just another opinion.

Caveats

There are many issues that feel purely political and feel like they can only be decided on ideological grounds. But I think (yes, only my opinion) a scientific angle always can be found. For example taxation, different measures of punishment, privatization, education… At the moment the side which dumbs down the argument more successfully, wins. Journalists should not let this happen.

I talk about “the journalists”. I’m sincerely sorry for that. I know many of you are out there trying to do your best, operating under grim conditions, lacking resources like time, money and pro-journalistic laws.

Also, some organisations get this extremely well. My respect for The Economist increases with every article I read.

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  • I agree that ‘facts’ should be given a stronger voice in journalism, especially when people are allowed to say anything they want without having to prove in any way where there opinions come from and how they could possibly know what they just stated as the obvious truth or only way etc.

    However, ‘facts’ do not speak for themselves. There is no ideology-free way of presenting ‘the facts’, nor can we talk about ‘the facts’ without building upon our own ideologies of what we see as important enough to look for the facts about, of what we count as fact and what not etc. Giving a voice to ‘science’ always means giving a voice to certain scientists, to people who present their scientific viewpoint. In addition to that, there are also more explicit ideological struggles ‘within science’ which is most obvious in cases where ‘experts do not agree’. This is more easily seen in social sciences, as many people there do no longer hide behind an allegedly ‘neutral’ perspective, but it is also true for any scientific field, including the natural sciences or economics. It is especially true for the topics you mention (‘taxation, different measures of punishment, privatization, education’) – the ‘facts’ here depend on one’s goal, and goals are always ideological.

    So, while I agree that everyone who claims to have an opinion on something should be prepared to ‘face the facts’ and journalists especially should see it as their duty to compare what important people say to what experts agree on is reality, I want to point out that there is no ideology-free science we can rely upon to do this. We still have to choose which facts to include and which ones to leave out, whom to select for representing a certain viewpoint and whom we ignore – or do not even know about to begin with for various reasons. If we counter ‘politician A says X’ with an uncritical ‘science says Y’, we only hide how fuzzy and complicated reality is. There’s a whole system of ‘n opinions’ and people who fight for them within science as well.

  • benfreu

    Thanks Michael, I totally agree, especially my “n-1” point was pretty polemic and probably counterproductive to the point I was trying to make.

    I didn’t mean journalists should present “the one science view” to everything a leader says. But maybe use science as a starting point to find new angles to the story. And in this way they can add a scientific view even to the most complex issues like taxes, education, etc. Not “A says X, B says Y” but “A says X, and there is this evidence, X is a good idea and this evidence, it might not be a good idea”. Or “A says X and there is no evidence, this is the case”

    While it may not be possible to find the truth for the stimulus/austerity fight, you can for example expose a lie about why Austria got downgraded. Or in education it wouldn’t hurt to look at studies from other countries or check some statistics when a politician speaks for “the common person”.

    I guess it all boils down to the problem I always had with the argument “there is no truth, so journalists should not try to find it”. We all may not be able to find “the truth”, but journalism should be more daring than to list opposing views.

    And once again I have to emphasize: I see this happening in some very cool parts of journalism, but I would argue to bring this to daily news.