​WONG: Diversity of coverage is not always necessary

Impartiality is a flawed practice when it elevates opinions that are not founded in objective fact


AllSides is a news service that attempts to portray different events from different sides of the political spectrum.

Courtesy AllSides

The pursuit of diversity of opinion is a decades-old process, consistently praised for positively influencing scientific research and workplace habits. Publications such as The New York Times or AllSides attempt to pierce so-called “filter bubbles” by presenting arguments from political liberals, moderates and conservatives. The Cavalier Daily’s public editor, Jacquelyn Katuin, noted that “it is important to continue this dialogue and encourage healthy, substantive debate about political issues and other content.” No doubt, a diversity of opinion is essential in formulating well-rounded, convincing arguments; however, in promoting articles from those across the political spectrum, journalists and reporters must abstain from providing a false balance — described by Oxford researcher Robert Grimes as “when journalists present opposing viewpoints as being more equal than the evidence allows” — when dealing with scientific and political issues.

The dangers of false balance have been documented in the mass media’s coverage of environmental and scientific issues, primarily concerning climate change and vaccination efficacy. In the realm of climate change, for instance, mainstream media coverage of climate change has been relatively balanced, despite overwhelming scientific evidence indicating the existence of man-made climate change. Despite this, a 2004 report by Maxwell and Jules Boykoff found that, from 1998 to 2002, “in the majority (52.65 percent) of coverage in the US prestige press, balanced accounts prevailed; these accounts gave ‘roughly equal attention’ to the view that humans were contributing to global warming, and the other view that exclusively natural fluctuations could explain the earth’s temperature increase.” As a result, Maxwell and Jules Boykoff note that “despite general agreement in the scientific community regarding the existence of anthropogenic influences on global warming, coverage seemed to indicate that division in the scientific community was quite even … This disconnection has played a significant role in the lack of concerted international action to curb practices that contribute [to] global warming.”

Yet, the presentation of false balance is not exclusively limited to the field of climate change. The so-called “fair and balanced” coverage provided between vaccinations and long-debunked safety concerns — especially concerning vaccinations and autism — has resulted in reduced vaccination rates against diseases such as polio and measles. In 2009, the Public Library of Science noted that despite “overwhelming evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism, one in four Americans still think they do. Not surprisingly, the first half of 2008 saw the largest U.S. outbreak of measles — one of the first infectious diseases to reappear after vaccination rates drop — since 2000, when the native disease was declared eliminated.” The mass media plays an important role in informing citizens of vaccination safety — in providing a platform to pseudoscientists who questioned the efficacy of vaccines via faulty evidence, it rendered millions of citizens more vulnerable to otherwise-rare diseases.

In a separate incidence, a 2011 report by the New England Journal of Medicine found a “1982 television program on diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccination entitled ‘DPT: Vaccine Roulette’ led to a national debate on the use of the vaccine, focused on a litany of unproven claims against it.” The consequences of such “balanced” coverage were devastating — the NEJM reported that countries “that dropped routine pertussis vaccination in the 1970s and 1980s then suffered 10 to 100 times the pertussis incidence of countries that maintained high immunization rates.” In coverage of climate change and vaccination safety, mainstream media ignored overwhelming scientific consensus in order to achieve a level of “impartial” reporting. By doing so, the media negatively impacted public belief in such topics, thereby endangering public health and safety.

The pursuit of impartiality and objectivity in reporting is undoubtedly a noble one, and attempts to provide diverse viewpoints when dealing with controversial topics should continue. However, there exists a fine line between providing balanced viewpoints and elevating one side’s argument when there exists no evidence to support it. In ensuring diversity of opinion, modern-day reporters must abstain from providing an equal platform for viewpoints unable to verify their arguments with extensive, reliable facts.

William Wong is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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