Journalism in Transition: Accuracy Tips the Scale over Balance (Balance Special, 1/4)

This article is written by Katherine Celler (Canada).

As all good journalists have learned, central to responsible news writing is objectivity, accuracy, fairness and a balance of competing opinions. Yet in science journalism, when scientific evidence may favour one perspective, is balance still justified? Particularly in this field, accuracy, not balance, should be taken as the highest standard.

Balance demands that all sides of an issue – including all relevant information and stakeholder perspectives – are presented in an objective manner. But what if the balance of perspectives is 99 to 1? Does one maverick opinion deserve to be in the news, when the majority of scientists have come to a consensus on a topic? Does this not just cause public confusion and misperception?

In an article entitled ‘A Question of Balance: The Autism-Vaccine Controversy in the British and American Elite Press,’ author Clarke concurs that balanced reporting can represent a form of bias which can conflict with accuracy. Despite the overwhelming majority of scientists not supporting a link between autism and a childhood vaccine, in the name of balance, journalists gave the impression that the evidence was uncertain.

In the words of Clarke, ‘media coverage represents a social relationship with news consumers.’ Journalists do not only provide people with information, but also identify problems, stakeholders and possible solutions. Balance shapes what information and which perspectives are provided.

So the question is: how can journalists adhere to the balance norm, with all of its responsibilities, while still conveying truthful information in their reporting?

Accuracy comes to the rescue. Accuracy involves analyzing details, verifying facts, avoiding errors, and ensuring that the most supported view point is conveyed. When a scientific consensus has been reached, accuracy demands that journalists report the main scientific conclusion – even when an opposing viewpoint exists.

In the end, it comes down this: in science journalism, accuracy tips the scale over balance.