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False Balance

August 9, 2012

In yesterday’s New York Times, there’s an article about President Obama’s criticism of the media and “false balance”.

While Mr. Obama frequently criticizes the heated speech of cable news, he sees what he views as deeper problems in news outlets that strive for objectivity. In private meetings with columnists, he has talked about the concept of “false balance” — that reporters should not give equal weight to both sides of an argument when one side is factually incorrect. He frequently cites the coverage of health care and the stimulus package as examples, according to aides familiar with the meetings.

In regards to the stimulus, he has a point. How many times have we heard that the stimulus “failed”? Is this factually correct? Not according to 92% of surveyed economists who believe that it lowered the unemployment rate. And only 12% of those economists think the cost of the stimulus exceeded it’s benefit.

In The Balance Trap, the Economist writes about how many journalists make the mistake of reporting “both sides” of every issue – even if one side is factually incorrect – in order to appear balanced, and how some special interest groups are taking advantage of this.

It should be obvious that this made-up scenario has parallels in climate-change reporting, an area of journalism that has been dogged by the issue of balance. When climate-change sceptics felt that reporters were writing about the issue as if it were accepted fact, they pushed hard to create a sufficiently large body of “experts” and “evidence” in order to force journalists to take cover under the trusty shield of balance. A controversy was created, where none had existed, by those who stood to gain. And thus journalists felt obliged to give equal weight to both sides of the debate.

Incidentally, the New York Times article also includes a comment from John Hinderaker:

Conservative pundits see things differently. “Obama is used to the press cheerleading for him so any time a story gets reported straight he’s likely to think it represents a false equivalency,” said John H. Hinderaker, a Minneapolis lawyer behind Power Line, a conservative political Web site.

To which, the Economist replies:

Ironically, the Times falls into the balance trap in its very own article. After suggesting that false balance is some lefty concept rather than common sense, the Gray Lady feels compelled to interview the editor of the “left-leaning” Talking Points Memo as well as the creator of the “conservative” Power Line. The latter cannot resist giving Mr Obama a poke in the eye, but both quotes are so devoid of meaningful information about the concept of false balance as to be farcical.

This might be news to the Economist, but most of Hinderaker’s comments are “devoid of meaningful information”.

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