The Power of Journalism – False Balance Effect

Insisting in juxtapositioning in journalism often results in false balance effects.

The journalist often has to handle topics in her/his field of work which s/he is not familiar with beforehand. In situations like this s/he often has to trust experts in the field, such as the scientific community or officials.

In media, the impartiality of articles is often strived for by bringing two people or groups that represent the opposing views into a juxtaposition. This is justified for example when presenting the arguments in topical political debate.

Even though all people should be equal all opinions are definitely not.

However, when facts and scientific information is being handled, the form may mislead the reader. All sources are not equal, and not all research is of the same high standard.

Even though there might exist contrary research results on a certain statement, the scientific community may be unified to support one of the positions. It might be possible, for example, that out of 100 studies only one or two have produced the opposite result: a result like this should belong in the error margin, not as the second party in an impartial debate.

Impartiality like this is structural, but not in fact truthful.

Misleading juxtapositions have been seen for example in the case of news reporting that handles climate change. The international scientific community has been for years practically unanimous about the fact that climate change is real and it is primarily caused by humans. Still, climate skeptics are heard and provided coverage in the name of impartiality.

It is good for a journalist to know basic information about how to find and recognize proven facts (see the picture with triangle).

It is good for a journalist to know basic information about how to find and recognize proven facts.

In medical research the hierarchy of proof goes as illustrated. In the top of the pyramid is the most reliable form of data (systematic reviews), while on the bottom is the most unreliable information (expert opinions). When a journalist is evaluating the quality of information, a big number of expert reviews corresponds to one systematic review. In other words, to reach a reliable case the journalist doing a research on a case either needs a big amount of expert opinions or just one systematic review.

Keep Reading:

Discrimination, stereotyping and picking experts
Go back to the beginning of this section: Critical Reading