The perils of “balanced” reporting

by Greg Mayer

Curtis Brainard, editor of The Observatory, the Columbia Journalism Review‘s online science journalism section, has a nice article up tracing the role of the news media in encouraging and spreading anti-vaccination pseudoscience, including the role of the disgraced British physician Andrew Wakefield, and the fear mongering of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (The latter once wrote a piece for Salon, which Salon later deleted, in doing so decrying the fraud tainted “science” of those propagating ” the debunked, and dangerous, autism-vaccine link.”) He discusses the differing reactions and developments in the UK and the US, including how  anti-vaccine pseudoscience developed later in the US, and how some journalists built their careers around promoting pseudoscience.

One thing he notes is that “balanced” reporting seems to have helped encourage the spread of the bogus claims:

[T]he study [of journalistic coverage] raises the problem of “objectivity” in stories for which a preponderance of evidence is on one side of a “debate.” In such cases, “balanced” coverage can be irresponsible, because it suggests a controversy where none really exists. (Think climate change, and how such he-said-she-said coverage helped sustain the illusion of a genuine debate within the science community.)

Although Brainard did not mention it, I’m sure that WEIT readers will immediately see the parallels to coverage of creationism and “teach the controversy” campaigns. I once parodied such he said-she said coverage here at WEIT:

You’ve all read the kind of story that will have a line like, “Dr. Smith, a paleontologist at the natural history museum, said Triceratops had been extinct for more than 60 million years before the origin of man, while Dr. Jones from the institute said Triceratops had been ridden by men like horses until the recent worldwide flood drowned them all”.

I’m glad to see that media critics like Brainard are critiquing this type of reporting, and that many journalists are becoming aware of the dangers of “balance” when one side has nothing at all. Other previous posts on vaccines at WEIT here and here. For regular coverage of medical pseudoscience, see Orac’s Respectful Insolence, and Ben Goldacres’s Bad Science.

h/t Andrew Sullivan


  1. Gordon Hill
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Too often those demanding both sides of an issue be presented have only one fact supporting their view: that it is in opposition to the facts… 😦

  2. Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    It’s probably more than a bit too mediaeval to actually be a good idea, but I have fantasies of a court subpoenaing Wakefield’s own personal vaccination history from his medical records, and dosing him with live agents for every infectious disease for which we have a vaccine that he doesn’t have a current vaccination for. They shouldn’t be massive doses; just the minimum amount typically known to cause infection in healthy adults. But they all need to be administered in the same session. And afterwards, once symptoms start to develop, he gets the full benefit of best-of-practice modern medical care, except no therapeutic vaccines.

    Same thing for Jenny what’s-her-face, his accomplice in the media. Hell, even turn it into a reality TV show, and lock the two of them in the same isolation ward.



    • Cremnomaniac
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for that Greg, I think Brainard is an absolutely correct. I work in a the field with many children that are Autistic. It seems that much of the anti-vaccination movement originated from folk associated with the disorder. You could say they have been the driving force behind this nonsense.

      More to the point of the article. I’m not sure it’s so much an attempt at “balanced” reporting as it is an attempt too sell controversy. If one individual comes out and disagrees with the conclusion of a thousand others, its reported as controversy over XXX. Therein lies the imbalance of the reporting. They rarely clarify the scale of dissension.
      Call it balanced, but its not.

      The same thing occurred when the technique of facilitated communication, which claimed to produce communication in severely disabled children was presented. It took years to debunk it, and guess what? It persists even today, some 40 years after its inception. The press has done a good job with that one. Their biggest problem is the never go back and and cover the debunking. That is, they are awful at elucidating good science from bad.

  3. marksolock
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Yes – the two sided approach that journalists tend to apply to science has proved very pernicious in the areas of evolution, climate change, vaccines, nutrition and sadly probably more I can’t think of.

    I saw an excellent interview with Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins: that demonstrated this weird journalistic two sides, everyone has an equal opinion phenomenon:

    Dawkins explains that there was no “first person” and why that is and when he finishes, the interviewer turns to Krauss and asks, “Do you agree with that?” as if it’s a matter of opinion. I’m hoping the journalist was just trying to be provocative and pull out discussion about why there isn’t two sides to everything (at least not two sides that are equally relevant or equally right).

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you 100% that that is the problem. Would it help if, when a scientist was posed the question,”Do you agree with that” by a journalist, he/she answered, “It’s not a question of belief; it’s a matter of which option has the evidence to support it”? Maybe.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:47 am | Permalink

        I hope that happens now. I think also journalists and would be journalists need to be educated about how science works and that would help as well.

  5. ladyatheist
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    There are two sides to every story: the right side and the wrong side. This post-modernist bullshit needs to die die DIE

    (not that I’m bitter about what post-modernism did to the humanities in academia)

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Hello ladyatheist:

      You’re among friends here. Please don’t hesitate to say what you *really* think. 😉

    • microraptor
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      There are times when it’s appropriate to cover both sides of a story equally, like if there are two groups who are arguing over whether to spend money on renovating the city’s public swimming pool vs adding more bike paths or something like that.

      The problem is that the media is convinced that they need to cover both sides of every story, even if one side is obviously cow manure. Some times, it’s due to “fairness.” Some times it’s due to generate controversy and increase viewership. And some times, it’s due to the fact that even though one side is insanely wrong they represent such a strong political and/or fiscal block in the community (for example, Christians in the US) that the media by default tries to avoid pissing them off.

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Another thing I’ve noticed is sensationalizing or misreporting things which means when corrections or updates follow, people are under the impression that science in general is flippant.

    I actually had a conversation with someone who said that she likes to look at all the sides of an issue (and I warned her about those dangers which we’ve already talked about above). She then said she couldn’t “trust” science because it changes all the time. Huh? I told her 1) the fact that science can change its position is a good thing 2) typically well proven, falsifiable, tested theories don’t change although there can be disagreements among scientists about how things work that don’t discredit the whole theory. Then I realized her perception of the “flakiness factor” was from just bad reporting.

    • Suri
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes science changes all the time but usually for the better …as in fine tuning our understanding about x or y.

  7. Leon Cejas
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    The costs of pseudo-science are real. Over a thousand preventable deaths and 100,000 preventable illnesses in the last six years.

  8. MrHolbyta
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t think there are two equal sides to every story.” – Edward R. Murrow

    This notion of “Fair & Balanced”/”We report. You decide.” Is a disservice to the audience. “Objective” reporting (which is impossible, because we are subjective beings and always bring our context into everything we do) is not simply a matter of one said – another said. So often today reporting basically consists of reading press releases from opposing organization. Journalism should be about discovering and reporting the truth, as best one can. Part of that means evaluating the evidence and refuting claims which the evidence doesn’t support. If a person is caught on camera committing a crime (e.g. hiring a hitman to kill her rich husband) and later a claims, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” we consider it good journalism to refute her claims. I don’t understand why we can’t apply the same techniques to claims by politicians and scientists (and “scientists”). If a story truly is debated, then by all means present both sides. If a story has a strong consensus, report the consensus, because that is the news. There is a “question of the beard” here, but that should be handled in good faith on a case by case basis.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      I think part of the problem is that as soon as emotions are involved in a dispute people have a generous tendency to take something which ought to be considered a “fact” and turn it into a “preference.” Side A wants it this way … but side B wants it the other way. It is not for us to judge what other people want. Everybody is different. People have the right to their own paradigms.

      It’s frustrating to constantly have issues which ought to be objective framed instead as one type of person making the choice-which-is-right-for-them vs. another type of person making the choice-which-is-right-for-THEM. The media wants a sensational story, sure. But I think they’re also giving their readers the epistemology they want. You don’t dismiss a sincerely-held belief. That way lies madness; next thing you know they’ll be going after all sorts of lifestyles and faiths and rights-to-believe.

      • MrHolbyta
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        I’m confused by your conclusion. Are you saying that “This way lies madness…” is part of the epistemology being sold? If not, that statement seems to conflict with the idea of objective reporting. I.e. if journalists are to evaluate truth claims and report consensus, they will, of necessity, occasionally and rightly ‘go after all sorts of lifestyles and faiths and rights-to-believe’ when there is consensus that those various systems are false or destructive.

  9. Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    “Balanced” reporting has been severely detrimental to GM crops in the UK, with severe implications for future food security. It’s not just that both sides get equal time. On one side, you have the calm, considered scientist, admitting that there might be some risks in some circumstances and calling for proper testing but cautious optimism. On the other side, you have an empassioned, convinced campaigner, unwavering in the face of any facts or evidence presented. It is not surprising the public so often end up going against the scientist. “Balanced” reporting results in lies and paranoia presented as fact, and fact presented as mere uncertainty. Journalists do need to do better but arguments clearly sell better than information.

  10. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    Completely Off Topic, (unless one regards it as a bizarre example of ‘balance’) but I had to share it – the Australian Christian Lobby left its old website unattended and is now the site of Australian Cat Ladies. It’s worth a look.

    Meanwhile redirects to the ACL. The Christian one, that is.

    There seems to be a real catfight going on in Oz cyberspace.

  11. Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry to say that the BBC was one of the worst offenders in the Wakefield case and completely failed to learn anything in the decade+ following. There was a report on its breakfast news show just a few weeks ago once again promoting the idea that vaccines might cause autism because some people said so.

    This report was due to a measured increase of measles in Britain because people were scared of vaccinating their children to earlier scaremongering.

    There are several ways the BBC could have reacted to this. They could have said “OK, we were wrong, vaccines are fine and we shouldn’t have welcomed Wakefield into the studio all those times or pretended there was a controversy when there wasn’t. Super sorry. Sorry people got hurt.” Another is to say “Well, someone said vaccines bad and we just report what people say and we’re totally above blame because the media are awesome and – by the way – WE COULDN’T CARE LESS about what’s true or who gets hurt.”

    The BBC has *not* chosen the high ground.

  12. Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I think this is an example of the politicisation of culture. When we are led to consider party politics, for example, what we are faced with is an endless stream of ideological talking points with nothing but emotion to arbitrate between them. You would *think* (rightly) that *evidence* might actually have something to bear upon correct and proper public policy, but instead we live in a system that supports parroting ideologues, and that’s how we like it – we’re tribal and we crave political team-sports.

    Similarly, because we are all encouraged to have our own opinions at the expense of facts and reality, this pernicious way of thinking bleeds into other modes of discourse, sullying the scientific process by elevating shit alongside it.

  13. Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    It’s not the job of the media to educate people, that is the realm of the classroom.

    Skepticism is good to have, it is education that helps determine what skepticism is valid and what skepticism is not.

    Taking away “balanced” reporting under the guise of protecting the masses from absurd theories is very dangerous. Very dangerous indeed. It’s what religions did (and still do in some places) for hundreds of years.

    The people have the right to hear arguments and decide how absurd they are for themselves.

    • MrHolbyta
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

      The problem with that is twofold.

      1) When it comes to highly specialized knowledge, most people aren’t qualified to assess conflicting claims. Instead, we rely on people with expertise. I suppose this could be overcome if the press would differentiate peer reviewed vs non-peer reviewed studies and would report on the qualifications of those who advance different theories (including things like what school awarded them PhD’s).

      2) A legitimate fact to report is the consensus among scholars or the lack of consensus. Presenting the evolution/creation issue as a legitimate controversy is like presenting the geocentric/heliocentric issue as the same. Presenting the vaccination issue as a legitimate controversy is like presenting flat earth vs round earth as the same. Scientific consensus on many issues is a fact which deserves to be reported.

      • Posted May 4, 2013 at 5:01 am | Permalink

        It’s actually worse than your examples would suggest.

        In both cases, at human scales, heliocentricism reduces to geocentricism and a round Earth reduces to a flat one — and both models remain very useful in day-to-day life. Just grab a road map at your local gas station to see how powerfully useful the flat Earth model is, and I defy you to find an astronomer who ever describes in regular conversation a celestial object’s apparent motion as anything other than rising and setting in the sky.

        Creationism, on the other hand, is much more akin to the Luminiferous Aether. Once upon a time it was a reasonable explanation that fit the known evidence, but subsequent investigation has revealed that it’s as far off base as the stork theory of human reproduction. It’s just plain worng, and there are no cases in which using the theory produces anything remotely resembling useful results. You can spread your map out on your flat table and use it to plot a route through the city, but even loosely trying to fit a divine creator in your biology is guaranteed to produce incoherent results.

        And the anti-vaccination movement is entirely a scam that never came close to fitting any observation. It’s the con artist selling you the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, no more and no less.



  14. Suri
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I like Sean B Carroll’s 6 tactics quacks use to discredit science:

    1-Doubt the science
    2-Question the motives and integrity of scientists
    3-Magnify disagreements among scientists, and cite gadflies as authorites
    4-exaggerate potential harm
    5-Appeal to personal freedom
    6-Acceptance reppudiates key philosophy

    From creationists to antivaxer morons they all seem to use many or all of these tactics to discredit science.

    As for journalists well, they need to make a living so to hell if what they say has a negative impact on society.

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