Sunday, September 16, 2012

Media Failure: False Balance

If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan started saying the world is flat, most conventional journalists would repeat the assertions and offset them with contrary opinions.

This kind of “false balance” is the subject of the New York Times’ promising new Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who examines the proposition that it should be called “false equivalency”:

“Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.”

On issues where answers are elusive but not impossible to pin down, such as voter fraud/suppression, getting beyond false balance is left to media fringes such as Bill Moyers and Jon Stewart, rather than mass media.

“There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” says the Times national editor. “One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.”

Yet the facts are otherwise (see Stewart and Moyers), but it would hard to learn that from Times “balanced” reporting.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Senate’s last sage, is invoked in the argument, recalling his dictum that opponents are entitled to their opinions but not their own facts.

Moynihan is best known for his sociological proposition, “Defining Deviancy Down,” in which he wrote of declining standards in public discourse, “We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us.”

If he were with us today, he would surely be raising the same questions about journalists as well as politicians. The Times Public Editor puts it this way:

“Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.

“The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership--and the democracy--will be.”

1 comment:

Jeff Mitchell said...

The opposite of "false balance" is called "investigative journalism". When you post the truth about someone, such as a scam artist, to offset your perceived credibility, they often sue you.

A friend of mine is launching the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation "to fill the vacuum for professionally crafted enterprise work on capital markets participants due to the economic collapse of mainstream media" (see: Because of the threat of lawsuits, his insurance company has demanded he take out a $20M insurance policy which costs a fortune. For 99.9% of reporters, there is no perceived benefit of spending a large chunk of their income on insurance while almost guaranteeing a large chunk of their time will be devoted to filing legal briefs.

The solution is to establish an anti-SLAPP procedure on the federal level. For those not familiar with such laws, it means in situations where someone sues you to essentially shut you up, the burden of proof shifts to them to convince a judge they would likely prevail at trial. If the plaintiff cannot make his/her case, he/she must now pay the defendants legal fees.