Science Needs No Balance (Balance Special, 2/4)

This article is written by Roelof van den Berg (The Netherlands).

Balance, together with depersonalization and accuracy makes up the journalistic norm of objectivity each of us (journalists) tries to adhere to. But, dealing with scientific content, balance might not be the right way to obtain objectivity. In this article, I point out some of the difficulties of using balance in journalistic articles on science.

Balance brings bias
A bias introduced by the use of balance in media coverage has been shown on the subject of climate change by Maxwell and Jules Boykoff in this paper. Boykoff and Boykoff showed that while there was international consensus by scientists, mass media gave relatively much attention to critics of research showing anthropogenic influence on climate change. Due to this balanced coverage it seemed to the world that scientists where uncertain about anthropogenic influence, despite the fact that there was consensus. Industrial lobby groups sponsoring scientists got out their message more widely thanks to balance. Should we use balance at all times? I think not.

Clashing opinions
The main problem causing the bias seems to be the difference between scientists and journalists. Much of the differences are explained by JoAnn Valenti in this paper. Scientists are experts on their own field and have loads of knowledge on their expertise. According to Valenti, they are in search for complete and objective knowledge. Journalists are not experts on one subject, but tend to be mostly generalists. Because it is difficult for them to research an objective truth themselves, they rely heavily on expert sources, like scientists in our case. In order to create journalistic objectivity from these sources, journalists seek out opposing opinions. They let the sources advocate their positions, making every subject to a debate while there might not be one at all.

Minority rules
While scientific truth arises from evidence based research, journalistic objectivity comes from combining sources. In the case of global warming, journalists mostly gave both opinions equal opportunity to advocate their opinion. The scientific consensus was towards anthropogenic influence, but the mass media reported it as if there was no consensus. Journalists might do better to let balance go and first find out if there is consensus on a subject. When only a small part of scientific society thinks differently, this difference in group size should be clearly stated and emphasized, but it might be even better to leave out the minority.

Sponsored scientists
Lobby groups sometimes sponsor scientists as part of their media campaign. Sharon Beder shows the field of forces in her paper on manipulation of the news. In the case of the global warming debate, skeptics on anthropogenic influence where sponsored by industrialist lobby groups trying to save their skin. Journalists should be aware of the hidden agendas of their sources in order to give value to their opinions. We should try to understand what the motives are for a scientist to research a subject and who his sponsors are. A little bit of research into the background of sources can give insight into their motives. The context in which a scientist operates should also be named in articles as far as it is possible to do so.

Sharing sources
While it is not always easy or possible to check the full background of a source in order to evaluate its opinion, we can also find out about this context by means of an interview. According to Wikipedia: “A journalist (also called a newspaperman) is a person who practices journalism, the gathering and dissemination of information about current events, trends, issues, and people while striving for viewpoint that is not biased.” Therefore, it seems to me to be a good idea to share gathered knowledge about the background of sources with each other via Wikipedia. This makes the task of checking backgrounds of sources take less and less effort.

In order to provide the world with a proper view on science, the scientific consensus needs to be communicated, if available. Such a consensus is sometimes hard to find, but scientists working for lobby groups can be found when journalists actively share information about their sources. Using online media like Wikipedia, this gives more insight into the motivation of scientists to conduct research. When publishing about a scientific outcome it is necessary to provide readers with background information about the context in which researchers work.

So, in short:

  • Find out if there is scientific consensus
  • Leave out minorities when there is scientific consensus
  • Make interests of each party clear
  • Disseminate knowledge about sources