False Balance in Journalism
“Are you going to give five minutes to the Nazis and five minutes to the Jews?”
This was one of the first things that truly stuck out to me in Journalism school, sitting in a quiet intro journalism class, lit, badly I might add, by buzzing fluorescent bulbs. My brain was resting elsewhere until it was yanked back in by that question.
At that point in my life, I wasn’t very sure what I wanted to do, I was only in my second or third semester of college, and had no real passion to speak of, journalism was always a backup plan of sorts, and as a result, I didn’t treat those early classes with the respect that I would today. Instead, I spent most of the time zoning out to the clicking of decades outdated computers, until this class.
The question of media coverage on particular subjects like Nazis and Jews isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface. Think for a second that you’ve been writing for a newspaper for many years, decades even. You’ve been burned by scaldingly hot readers for doing your damnedest at remaining impartial and providing a fair voice to two sides in a story, even if that cost you hours of sleep and a few gray hairs. It feels like an affront to some eldritch newspaper god if you don’t find whatever way you can to cover each side fairly, and if you don’t you’ll be smitten accordingly, though the keyword there is fairly.
To many uninitiated and even some long-time journalists, the words fairly and equally are interchangeable terms, meaning practically the same thing to them even though they hide a bias that is inescapable in all forms of media, not just journalism.
We are humans, we are fallible, and even the most hardened of journalists still have personal opinions, and many times that opinion shows up, sometimes unintentionally through what we don’t cover, through what we leave out. This is where journalists can show their true impartiality, however, by covering topics with an eye keyed in on facts, and facts alone, and reporting those facts.
Now, the media only reporting the facts, and giving facts a platform doesn’t exactly seem like a novel concept but you’d be surprised. One of the most pertinent examples of that can be found in media coverage of vaccines.
Many trace the origin of the modern anti-vaxxer movement to the 1982 “documentary” DPT: Vaccine Roulette, produced by a WRC-TV reporter, Lea Thompson. Thompson’s piece won an Emmy for its reporting on the risks associated with the DPT vaccine…except there is basically no evidence supporting the claims made throughout, and was torn apart by experts.
Dr. Martin Levy, administrator of preventive health services for the D.C. Department of Human Services said to the Washington Post in 1982, “From the data I have seen, there is no indication that we should stop using the vaccine.”
The case for Lea Thompson and much of the media manipulation we see regarding vaccines, and media manipulation as a whole generally plays off of an appeal to Pathos, or a direct appeal to emotions in order to stir up controversy. These examples are often set up as sympathetic mothers, normal people, and the underdogs versus the medical establishment, and cold, unfeeling doctors.
This type of media coverage has damaging repercussions, take, for example, the case of Dr, Andrew Wakefield.
Wakefield is famous for a 1998 study that linked the MMR measles vaccine with a risk of autism in children. This study was picked up in a media frenzy and Wakefield was lauded as a vaccine expert from the “other side of the aisle” that could offer some credence to otherwise unsupported positions.
I should add that soon after Wakefield’s study it came out that he was paid an amount of nearly $665,000 dollars by lawyers in order to fund the study, and those lawyers used the findings from the study to sue vaccine makers. Wakefield was also accused of fudging numbers in order to better fit his narrative.
Other studies in subsequent years also found no connection between MMR and autism, some of these studies spanning a near population-level sample size. Wakefield’s paper has since been redacted by the journal that published it.
Even with the controversy surrounding Wakefield, he was still used as an expert by media organizations. In a 2000 episode of 60 Minutes Wakefield, along with parents, is used as a singular scientific expert on vaccine dangers versus multiple other experts, creating a false dichotomy of evidence. This type of depiction leads people to believe that if two sides are offered similar amounts of air time then there must be similar amounts of evidence.
A 2002 special from BBC called Every Parent’s Choice falls to the same trappings and also uses Wakefield as an expert. Wakefield and the anti-vax interviewees are never pressed in the special and instead, the burden of proof is left with the scientists and researchers interviewed in the piece.
Philosopher Alfred Archer said this about false balance in media, “By giving significant attention to outsider positions within the scientific community journalists run the risk of sending the message that expert opinion is more evenly divided than in fact is the case.”
The results are apparent as well. Following Wakefield and his findings, measles flourished in the UK, the US, and elsewhere in the world.
This is not an attack on the media, however. In an environment where many media organizations keep the lights on by keeping eyes and ears to their work stories with strong conflict and emotional stakes is a strong draw. People can see themselves as desperate parents just trying to keep their kids safe, acting as underdogs against a system that has not been infallible.
Especially since the stories involve our children it makes for great television, but journalists have a responsibility to comb through that, to tell the real story, not just the one that people want to hear.
Would you give five minutes to the Jews and five minutes to the Nazis?