Build Your Own Baloney Detector

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Illusion of Balance (Part 1): Did they Check these Facts?

One of the ideals of reporting has long been “balance”, reporting the facts and giving the audience or reader a chance to decide the truth for themselves. This is a laudable ideal, of course, except that sometimes the pursuit of the appearance of balance (and fairness) gets in the way of actual careful reporting of the facts. I’ve seen this happen in two ways, so I’m covering it in two posts. Today, I’ll look at the problem with treating everyone’s facts equally. In my next post, we’ll look at the problem with giving equal time to all sides.

News media (and I’m not saying “reporters” because this also involves their editors and everyone else up and down the line) can choose to report facts in a few ways. A book I was reading recently (The Inquisition of Climate Science by James Lawrence Powell) suggested that this is best viewed as a continuum. I’m going to argue that there are at least two dimensions. The first is neutrality. The story can take a strong stance or it can be entirely neutral. On the former extreme, you have editorials, which aren’t usually considered news pieces per se. (Although in some cases, they seem to get slipped into the news without comment or label.) We tend to think that news stories should be on the neutral extreme, and with good reason. We don’t want them too neutral, however. We want the reporters to make logical inferences from the facts they collect and to some degree, taking a stand on some issues is perfectly warranted. (“Terrorist attacks are bad,” is probably not a viewpoint that almost anyone would object to, for example.) This is the continuum that most people think about when they think about news balance. It’s not the one I want to mostly talk about, though.

The dimension I’m interested in is the trust dimension. Reporters interview experts, witnesses, and parties concerned with stories on a daily basis. They also read countless press releases and studies. They do these things in order to report the facts or views that they collect in their stories. But are their sources accurate? There’s a fact-checking continuum, too. On the one extreme, you can fact-check nothing at all and just report statements (perhaps with attribution to save yourself from lawsuits). On the other, you can fact-check every single thing. The latter is clearly not economically feasible, nor is it reasonable. When the family of an accident victim reports their reaction, there’s no need to verify the relationship (a little trust is in order, in general) or to check on their credibility. In fact, doing so would probably cause unnecessary added insult and injury to already miserable people. So we can’t fact-check everything.

Sadly, it often seems that the news media has gone the other way lately and fact-checks nothing at all, simply reporting whatever either political party claims is true. The problems with this extreme are obvious when we think about them, so why does it happen? In part, because of time and money. Media outlets are on limited budgets and are being squeezed all the time. But there’s also an illusion of balance at play: to fact-check a politician might seem like taking sides against them. If the media appears to overwhelmingly check on one side or the other, that is seen as bias. So I wonder if the media also avoids checking on politicians’ facts for fear of seeming hostile to one side or the other. (This is also true of areas other than politics. When reporting a medical breakthrough, a good reporter will contact other experts in the field and get their views of the discovery, for example.)

Of course, fact-checking isn’t hostility, it’s the media’s job. I take it as a warning sign when I read a fact attributed to someone, especially a politician or pundit, without having been checked.

posted by John Weiss at 10:45  

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