False Balance

Today, false balance is used to describe a perceived or real media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports.

Journalists may present evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side, or may even actually suppress information which would establish one side’s claims as baseless. False balance is also often found in political reports, company press releases, and general information from organizations with special interest groups in promoting their respective agendas.

An example of issues sometimes handled with false balance are pseudoscience, as when a national nightly news program in the US gave coverage to a backyard inventor who claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine; the program presented scientific authorities to explain why such a device was impossible, but since they gave equal time to the claims of the inventor, it may have created a false impression with audiences that his claims were credible, although they were not. ‘Objective coverage’ of lynching in the 1890s by US journalists failed, ‘to recognize a truth, that African-Americans were being terrorized across the nation.’

Other recent examples of false balance in reporting on science issues include the hot topics of man-made vs. natural climate change, the relation between vaccines and autism, and evolution vs. intelligent design. For instance, although the scientific community overwhelmingly attributes a component of climate change of the last 50–100 years, particularly global warming, to the effects of the industrial revolution, there are a handful of scientists who dispute this conclusion. Giving equal voice to scientists on both sides makes it seem like there is a hearty debate within the scientific community, even though there is actually an overwhelming consensus.

False balance can sometimes originate from similar motives as sensationalism, where producers and editors may feel that a story portrayed as a contentious debate will be more commercially successful to pursue than a more accurate account of the issue. However, unlike most other media biases, false balance may actually stem from an attempt to avoid bias; producers and editors may confuse treating competing views fairly—i.e., in proportion to their actual merits and significance—with treating them equally, giving them equal time to present their views even when those views may be known beforehand to be based on false information.

 A study conducted by Jules and Maxwell Boykoff found that in the case of global warming, for example, a much more apparent consensus within the scientific community had been reached than the media made it seem. NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988 that he was ’99 percent certain’ burning fossil fuels was one of the factors that caused temperatures to rise. That same year, the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC), which went on to produce a steady stream of reports supporting Hansen’s claim that humans are contributing to global warming. Yet, while over 3,500 articles on global warming appeared between 1988 and 2002 just in ‘The New York Times,’ ‘The Wall Street Journal,’ ‘The Washington Post,’ and ‘The Los Angeles Times,’ 53 percent of these stories gave roughly equal attention to scientists who expressed views that global warming was caused by humans as they did to those who said global warming was caused by nature.

Jules and Maxwell Boykoff use the lead paragraph of a 1992 front-page article from ‘The Los Angeles Times,’ as an example: ‘The ability to study climatic patterns has been critical to the debate over the phenomenon called ‘global warming.’ Some scientists believe—and some ice core studies seem to indicate—that humanity’s production of carbon dioxide is leading to a potentially dangerous overheating of the planet. But skeptics contend there is no evidence the warming exceeds the climate’s natural variations.’ This paragraph puts scientists against skeptics, as though both are on equal grounds of knowledge, when in reality the scientists (even in 1992) have far more reason to believe that humanity is causing temperatures to rise than skeptics have to disagree. Additionally, putting ‘global warming’ in scare quotes implies that the phrase is lacking in legitimacy.

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