Press Objectivity, Biotech, and Gaia Worship

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Is there a difference between objective reporting and "balanced" reporting?

I had an opportunity to put that burning question to a group of college newspaper editors when I spoke at a conference on "The Role of the Press in a Free Society" hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies. My argument was that "balance" and "objectivity" are two different things, though they are often lumped together. Balance, it is generally assumed, means that "both sides" in an article will be given roughly equal time and equal respect. In TV news terms, as I learned while working at ABC News for six years, it really means that you don't want either side threatening to sue you, so for practical purposes the truth, on any remotely controversial issue, is supposed to end up looking like a combination of the two (or more) sides or is presumed to fall somewhere in between them.

Unfortunately, it is often assumed to be the case that truth and the reporter's stance should be in the middle of the road even when science strongly supports the claims of one faction and rebuts the claims of another. At the conference, I showed a clip from the ABC special Tampering with Nature, hosted by John Stossel. Some of the students watching felt that the scientists defending biotech in the show came off looking good while anti-biotech activists such as Greenpeace looked ridiculous. Couldn't ABC have found anti-biotech crusaders who sounded just as reasonable as the pro-biotech scientists? Certainly, with enough effort, one could make two sides in any debate sound "equal."

But what is the virtue of balancing the two dominant perspectives if one side or both sides are demonstrably, objectively wrong? To take a hypothetical example (since the biotech issue may indeed be too controversial), if the Republicans, under pressure by the religious right, were to claim that faith-healing is the most reliable cure for cancer and the Democrats disagreed, saying there is no scientific evidence for this claim, should a responsible reporter feign indifference between the two positions? Alternatively, if the Democrats, under pressure by alternative medicine advocates, claim that quartz crystals have the magical power to heal (and want an increase in funding for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a result), but Republicans and scientists say otherwise, should a reporter treat the two positions as "equal"?

As a metaphor, I offered the case of a dispute in a society half composed of Nazis (with all their eugenics-theory baggage) and half composed of Gaia worshippers. Sadly, some of the students were hampered in the discussion by what they saw as my far-fetched scenario. When I gave an earlier version of the speech at a previous conference, one student said the hypothetical society sounded like something out of Star Trek (as if that's a bad thing), and this year two students voiced objections, one calling the hypothetical "unfathomable" and the other saying that he thought a scenario in which a group was advocating belief in a flat Earth would be more enlightening. For practical reasons, I may need to change the hypothetical if I give the speech in the future, though I will say in my defense that at least one country in recent memory has gone Nazi, and the Nazi/Gaia scenario is certainly more likely than widespread flat-Earthism these days, since not even everyone in the Flat Earth Society, you will disappointed (or relieved) to learn, still believes the Earth is flat (you can find hints of self-parody and some inside-joke references to the works of absurdist authors such as Alfred Jarry and Robert Anton Wilson at one Flat Earth Society website, for instance).

The central philosophical point of my speech remains, though: It is quite often the case that there is widespread error in the public thinking and the media coverage on some topic, especially in matters of science and public health that aren't immediately deducible from "common sense." Those reporters who know the facts or can get the facts by acquainting themselves with the broad consensus of mainstream science owe it to the public to be objective and not just "balanced." That is, they should be concerned with reporting the facts, no matter how popular or unpopular, and not at all concerned about the potential for public backlash nor about how the truth will affect factional disputes in society.

The college newspaper editors who attended the conference, many of them from campuses prone to political controversy, were admirably wary of appearing to take sides in their reporting. However, if half the population becomes convinced that faith is the best cure for cancer, that quartz crystals heal, or simply that genetically-engineered tomatoes are likely to destroy the Earth, reporters owe it to the entire public to report that one half the population is dead wrong.