Here’s what “balanced” reporting can beget:
- The birthers. A large group of right-wing conspiracy theorists who mistakenly believe that President Obama was born in Africa and doesn’t have a legitimate U.S. birth certificate. Yet Hawaiian officials deny those claims and have produced copies of Obama’s birth certificate.
- Death panels. The claim by members of the newly formed Tea Party movement that the health care reform bill sponsored by the Democrats included language that would create “death panels” to determine if sick elderly patients would receive care or be abandoned to die. There was, of course, no such language.
- Vaccinations and autism. The belief by a growing number of people that the childhood vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella can trigger autism. This despite no creditable scientific evidence and, in fact, tons of evidence to the contrary.
- Evolution vs. intelligent design. A growing movement of Americans that believe that evolution – re-labelled as “Darwinism” – is an unproven belief system on par with creationism. In fact, evolution is a scientific fact and forms the basis of the study of biology.
- Holocaust deniers. A group of people that claim that the Nazi death camps in World War II targeting Jews and other minority groups did not happen or have been exaggerated despite the overwhelming evidence found in the historical record.
The cases above were legitimatized by getting lots of media coverage. Many of these movements were actually debated on TV news programs as if there were two legitimate sides to the story.
For example, Larry King on CNN interviewed one of the most vocal opponents to childhood vaccinations B-movie actress Jenny McCarthy. McCarthy told King’s audience: “No, I do not believe that vaccines are the sole cause for autism. I do believe they are a trigger.”
King presented the former Playboy model and college drop-out as a legitimate scientific source on vaccinations – even though the real scientists and doctors at the Centers of Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health have determined no link between vaccinations and autism in several published studies. Time magazine even wrote an article about the lack of scientific evidence supporting the autism connection, but headlined its story: “How Safe Are Vaccines?” as if the issue was still up for debate.
So now we have many people confused about the issue when there should be no confusion. Vaccinations have been one of the most important and successful public health initiatives in history – having literally saved the lives of millions of children.
The only way fringe movements – especially those fringe movements with no basis in fact – can become legitimate is to get media coverage. The media often succumb to these groups in the mistaken belief that they need to provide “balanced” coverage.
Balance in journalism has always been tricky and misinterpreted – not only by the public, but by journalists. When I was a journalist, the mantra was always: “Get both sides of the story.”
This was an effort to be fair – to make sure that the two-sides to every story were given equal weight. But unfortunately, there aren’t two sides to every story. Sometimes there’s only one side – and many times there are multiple sides (I’ve written about the myth of “two-sides of news” before).
The examples above are issues with only one side.
Obama, for example, was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. Here’s a copy of his birth certificate. There is no “other” side.
Yet the media felt compelled to air the birther’s beliefs in the name of “balanced” news. As a result, the reporting actually help spread the misinformation and bolster the claim. Some media outlets – like FOX-TV and Lou Dobbs on CNN – actually spread the untruths as a legitimate controversy. At one point in August 2009, more than a quarter of all Republicans believed Obama was foreign born.
Spreading misinformation is bad journalism. But it was this bad, but balanced journalism that helped spread the birther lies about the president.
The first obligation of journalism should be the truth. In the age of internet communications, where any fringe group of a web page can spread lies and deceit instantly and around the world, journalists need to forgo the antiquated idea that balance is part of uncovering truth.
Truth is what matters. If journalism is to survive and thrive in the 21st century then uncovering truth needs to be its primary goal. Not dividing every issue into two competing, but equal sides.
I’ve shared my opinion. What do you think? Is balance necessary for good journalism?