Post No.: 0118
‘Fairness’ and ‘balance’ in news reports are not the same things – being fair to the overall weight of empirical evidence is far more important than balancing both sides of a story. For example, if one side of a story has a huge amount of evidence to support it, such as climate change is happening, and the other side only has a little bit that casts doubt upon it, such as climate change denial, then it’d be unfair to present the argument as balanced or merely relativist by giving both sides an equal amount of air time during a debate. Yet too many media reports contrive and present a ‘false equivalence’ to stories i.e. as if an argument is about 50:50 balanced in debate when really one side far outweighs the other in hard evidence and support.
So the media often tries to be ‘fair’ by giving both sides of an issue equal exposure, but often the truth is that both sides aren’t equal in their evidence or consensus thus to give equal exposure to both sides would actually not be fair (e.g. 70% of the public are currently thinking about voting ‘yes’ and the other 30% are currently thinking about voting ‘no’ about something, but the news piece wants to be ‘fair’ and shows two people saying ‘yes’ and two people saying ‘no’ when they ask people on the street, suggesting that the public is more 50:50 divided than the truer 70:30 division. Or they may invite in an equal number of guest experts for each opposing side in a televised debate on an issue that is more 80:20 than 50:50 divided in the overall scientific community).
Yet we must still hear/read from all sides out of some level of fairness because they do exist and have their views, arguments and claimed evidence too. They might not deserve as much coverage as the most empirically-supported side because their views may not be as well-supported by hard evidence or sound logic but they deserve some rather than zero coverage. (Albeit there is a dilemma between the media reporting things like the views of extremist or terrorist ideals, acts, videos and materials – and therefore helping to spread their propaganda or rewarding their terrorism – and denying news that is possibly in the public’s interest.) We must pay some attention to their arguments rather than outright ignore them or deny them a voice (otherwise they might feel that an act of public disorder or terrorism is the only way to get our attentions).
Some groups will jump to the conclusion that certain empirically outmoded views have been ‘silenced’ because of some conspiracy theory. I don’t personally think those who want to deny overwhelmingly proven facts should pollute the public information space though (e.g. that the US Moon landings didn’t happen – even the Russians, despite being old adversaries in the space race, independently verified they must have happened by comparing lunar rock samples after their own unmanned probes collected some); or maybe these views should only be given the briefest of mentions in the appropriate contexts and manner.
Regardless – at the end of each side’s presentation, we need to bear in the forefront of our own minds where the overall preponderance of evidence lays or where the most peaceful route is irrespective of the eruditeness, charm or threats of any speaker. Indeed, with any piece of information from any side – including from the side one currently supports – one must critically assess whether it is verified, supported with hard evidence, whether it could be plain propaganda and/or whether there could be conflicts of interest or narrow or personal objectives that affect a speaker’s impartiality.
Journalists may feel that being ‘fair’ means always giving the other side a right of reply, which can serve to cast doubt on a story or claim, which is generally very easy to do against almost any claim – it’s far easier to attack a claim than to defend a claim because disproving a small part of a claim can cause people to doubt that claim in its entirety, whilst one needs to maintain 100% of a claim’s integrity otherwise many people won’t trust in it at all (just like e.g. people will tend to doubt the entire story of ‘where their spouse has been all night’ if just one small detail seemed questionable). This reasoning can be fallacious though if that small part doesn’t really affect the overall main story or claim, but casting doubt on the stronger side’s story and focusing all attention on those small doubted details is generally the main strategy of the weaker side’s story. Journalists may also fear litigation from a wealthy adversary funded by one of the sides with a commercial interest if they speak against the reputation of them or their products, hence they tend to offer such sides a right of reply no matter how despicable they’ve been.
And you’re virtually always going to be able to find someone or a group of people (e.g. on the street or via a request on a radio show) to interview and put in front of the camera or microphone, maybe as part of a news story or documentary, who supports a certain extreme or niche view, or simply agrees with what you want to say – it doesn’t necessarily mean that these people represent either the truth or the majority view of the general population but a journalist may want to show that he/she’s being impartially neutral and ‘balanced’ by giving every side roughly equal air time. But this can falsely make extreme or niche views seem more popular than they really are for the publicity the media is giving to those views (which might then subsequently help these views to actually become more popular!) Again, it’s not fair to give equally weighted coverage if an issue does not have equally weighted evidence, and expressing balance is not the same thing as being impartial or neutral. So we need the proper perspective when reading these stories or hearing these views.
Now on the one hand, giving minority voices a chance to be heard can risk making extremist minority voices feel more confident in their extreme views when knowing some other people (even just a small handful) around the world or country hold the same extremist sentiments too, thus consolidating and reinforcing their extreme views even more – yet on the other hand, it can give oppressed or previously-silent minority voices a chance to be democratically heard because not all niche views are dangerous. This is a dilemma. Woof.
And of course if a reporter or news outlet has an agenda or bias and doesn’t wish to be fair then they’ll very likely find it easy to serve it. For instance, if they want to present a 90:10 case as a 10:90 case then they could. Or if they want to intentionally select someone on the losing side with sour grapes to give a comment in order to present that side as sore losers then they’ll be able to find at least one such person, either face-to-face or lazily via searching and cherry-picking comments on social media – but this biased search and reportage may not fairly represent the general or overall feelings of that side. You can always find an unhappy customer or employee, a person who feels aggrieved, etc. but are such people numerous enough or representative of the general view? It’s like you can always find a success story or two involving participants in a pyramid scheme – but these few people don’t, won’t and cannot represent the majority of participants in such schemes! And propaganda against an outgroup is always easily served to a blindly accepting ingroup or insular echo chamber too.
Some media outlets sometimes also overplay how close contests, exit polls or decisions are because, after all, media channels must try to keep viewers hooked, and hooked on their channel in particular, and one way of doing this is to make things seem tense, tight, dramatic and still very uncertain (i.e. ‘it’s far from over yet so keep watching this space’). They can milk a news story more this way too if it’s a slow news day.
The work of genuinely honest journalists isn’t easy though for they constantly face these dilemmas of presenting what is fair, presenting all sides to a story, giving drowned-out or oppressed minorities a voice that’ll be heard, and satisfying or at least not harming the interests of their employers who pay them. Hence it’s usually down to us to be more savvy news consumers.
So keep your furry wits about you!