Facts vs. opinions: Beware of false balance in your reporting

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

scalesIt is a journalist’s job to objectively and fairly represent the various perspectives on an issue, and it’s a journalist’s responsibility to report facts to represent an issue as accurately as possible.

What happens when these two ethical obligations appear to conflict? Ideally, the seasoned journalist takes a step back to assess how the facts influence the balance a story should receive. When this doesn’t happen, a story runs the risk of having false balance — something even stories relying on scientific evidence (sometimes especially stories relying on scientific evidence) can fall victim to.

One recent example is a piece about the ongoing crisis of high lead levels in the local water of Flint, Mich., residents. Gov. Rick Snyder has declared a state of emergency, state and federal workers are handing out free bottles of water and EPA documents show lead levels testing as high as 13,200 ppb in one resident’s water sample (the level at which corrective action must occur is 15 ppb). But some outlets are reporting that “some Michigan politicians say the Flint water crisis is a hoax.”

Briefly, “Bill Ballenger, a well-known Republican political analyst, former state lawmaker and Flint resident” offered “the other side” of the story on his radio show, suggesting that the crisis is an overreaction or even a hoax because his own blood levels don’t test high for lead. Subsequently, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said, “Let’s wait and see what the facts show,” according to the Detroit Free Press.

The facts already show that the water is a public health disaster. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” – a sentiment echoed by the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics in her announcement that she was severing ties with Ballenger.

Ballenger and Patterson are entitled to think Flint’s water is just fine. They’re even entitled to say it, just as anyone can claim the Earth is flat, the moon landing didn’t happen, the sun circles the Earth and cavemen rode dinosaurs. But the facts reveal a real crisis that every other politician inside and outside Michigan is taking seriously. Writing about them with any bit of credibility is a case of classic false balance: using outliers’ voices to state opinions that contradict the facts simply to provide “balance” to a story. Ballenger and Patterson aren’t the underdogs being ignored by the powers that be. They ARE the powers that be. The underdogs are the thousands of children who will suffer lifelong consequences of lead exposure.

A balanced story would include an explanation of the lead levels and people affected by them. It would include a full version of what facts the rest of the media is getting wrong, as this outstanding Vox piece by Flint resident Connor Coyne explains. Politicians claiming there isn’t a problem would, in a factually balanced story, be appropriately cast as ignoring (or covering up) repeated lead levels tests, as was the case in this excellent three-part series from Michigan Public Radio.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon happens in health reporting, especially in stories about vaccines. We see it mostly in smaller markets or in stories by general assignment reporters who are less familiar with the health or science beat. The way the media’s falsely balanced vaccine reporting damaged public health reporting (and consequently public health) is such a well-worn case study that the Columbia Journalism Review featured outstanding coverage of it in Curtis Brainard’s “Sticking with the Truth.”

Yet it continues. During the coverage of the Disneyland measles outbreak last year, The New York Times quoted the head of the country’s largest anti-vaccine organization (mischaracterized as “a group raising concerns about inoculations”) and a doctor who rejects the scientific evidence about vaccines. Before that, Katie Couric fell into the false balance trap on HPV vaccine reporting (one that flared up again last year at The Toronto Star). More recent coverage of Mark Zuckerberg’s post of his daughter’s first round of vaccines invoked more false balance in articles that quoted “both sides” of the “vaccination debate,” ignoring the fact that there is no debate on CDC-recommended vaccines for children among those relying on medical evidence. To avoid this trap with this particular issue, the group Voices for Vaccines offers an excellent primer to false balance and how to avoid it in accurate news stories about vaccines.

Yet the danger of false equivalence remains for any issue on which a broad medical or scientific consensus exists based on the evidence and a handful of outliers attempt to discredit that information for various reasons.

Avoiding false balance doesn’t mean journalists take off their skeptical hat in covering these issues – it’s worth exploring whether the Flint crisis is overblown or what a new study might suggest regarding a risk to a vaccine we haven’t seen before. But they should only report scientifically outlier positions if solid evidence supports it, not just because someone is shouting it from their own tiny molehill.

4 thoughts on “Facts vs. opinions: Beware of false balance in your reporting

  1. Norman Bauman

    I have to defend Adam Nagorney and Abby Goodnough on this one. Paul Offit made the same argument at the AHCJ meeting in Denver. I think Offit was wrong.

    In an 18-paragraph story, which made the scientific consensus clear, there were only 3 paragraphs from anti-vaxers.

    The New York Times style book used to require getting all sides of the story. That’s a traditional journalistic practice. Offit was telling us not to get both sides, to accept his view as an authority, and to ignore the people he disagrees with.

    When I took Freshman humanities, they taught me not to accept authority — the only way to find out the truth was to get all sides, evaluate their facts and arguments, and decide who is right. That’s not just the process of journalism, that’s the process of science.

    The classic statement of that argument is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty http://www.bartleby.com/130/2.html which I think is still worth reading:

    If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

    Those of us who grew up during the Vietnam war found out that when the press picks a side, they often pick the wrong side. For a well-documented example, I invite you to read Gay Talese’s book about the New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power, particularly the chapter on the Columbia University demonstrations. In short, the New York Times and other newspapers accepted the police versions of anti-war demonstrations, when eyewitnesses, legal investigators and photographs showed widespread, illegal and unjustified police violence. This went on for years, and still does.

    In health care too, the news media often accept authority rather than getting all sides, and as a result we are inaccurate. I invite you to do a text search of the New York Times, public radio, or other news sources for “single payer” health care. In short, they ignored it, especially during the 2008 election and the decision to choose the Affordable Care Act. This is despite the fact that single payer was supported by responsible people like Marcia Angell, and had strong popular support, as demonstrated by literally hundreds of comments in the comments section in the New York Times. Now we have a candidate running for president with unexpected popularity who supports single payer. If the news media had given all sides of the health care debate, as the NEJM and other peer-reviewed journals did, we would have had a better-informed outcome, and wouldn’t have been surprised by the Sanders campaign. We might have had a better health care system. Instead, reporters on the Times picked winners and losers, and they decided single payer was a loser.

    We have to set the rules at the beginning. What kind of news media do you want? Do you want to give all sides of the story, with the supporting evidence for and against each side, and let the readers make up their own minds? Or do you want to decide for your readers, pick winners and losers, and be advocacy journalists for your favorites? I didn’t go into journalism to be an advocate. If I believe in single payer or Bernie Sanders, and I write a story about it, I’m going to turn around and get the best arguments I can against single payer or Bernie Sanders. If I’m writing about vaccinations or abortion or needle exchange programs, I’m going to call the people on the other side and find out first-hand what they really think. I let the facts and arguments speak for themselves.

    It’s not false balance. It’s balance. If the balance of evidence is on one side, I show it. The evidence is that needle exchange programs work. The evidence is that Indiana governor Pence caused an AIDS epidemic by failing to to implement needle exchange programs. The evidence is that most alternative medicine doesn’t work. The evidence seems to show that changes in water treatment caused lead in Flint’s water. The balance of evidence in Nagourney’s story is that anti-vaxers almost certainly caused measles outbreaks. Give them their 3 paragraph rebuttal, and show how weak their arguments are. That’s journalism. Are you going to be better informed if you get both sides of the story, or just one reporter’s opinion?

  2. Karen Garloch

    I agree with Tara that we should be careful about this “balance.”
    I would add one thing about the vaccine stories.
    We’re right to quote mainstream public health officials’ and the overwhelming evidence that vaccines have virtually eliminated some diseases in the U.S.
    But I think there should also be an acknowledgement that some people are damaged by vaccines, and a federal vaccine court has records of many documented cases.
    Too many stories cite the Wakefield study and say the connection between vaccines and autism is unproven. That totally misses the point that we do have evidence that some vaccines have caused harm in some people.

  3. Tara Haelle

    “When I took Freshman humanities, they taught me not to accept authority — the only way to find out the truth was to get all sides, evaluate their facts and arguments, and decide who is right. That’s not just the process of journalism, that’s the process of science.”

    Exactly. And if you’ve done that, then you know that giving a voice to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and misinformation is irresponsible. I made it clear that there ARE risks to vaccines, and any new ones that we find out about absolutely should be reported and with an appropriate consideration of all the scientific angles.

    Politics and political issues are covered differently than science because they are opinions and belief systems, not discussing an issue that has a specific factual basis that is not credibly disputed. If there was a legitimate scientific concern that, for example, vaccines were linked to autism, then a journalist absolutely should report it, regardless of what authority figures or public health officials or government officials say. That’s not what’s at issue here. If there is no credible evidence to suggest it, why would you give a platform to someone who is stating outright misinformation.

    If you would insist on including a quote about vaccines and autism as a “controversy” each time you reported on vaccines, would you also insist on including a comment from someone who believes the earth is flat each time you discussed anything relating to its roundness, such as the Coriolis effect or weather events or any sports event that involves circumnavigation? Would you insist on including quotes from a Holocaust denier each time you reported on anything relating to the Holocaust? If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the argument here: http://www.salon.com/2016/01/27/flat_earth_rapper_b_o_b_has_even_more_extreme_dangerous_views_he_promotes_holocaust_denial/

    Journalists are not beholden to authority figures. They ARE beholden to the facts, including scientific facts and evidence. To “balance” a story with misinformation that counters the evidence is irresponsible and unethical.

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