More objectivity, less balance, please

Paul Krugman made an interesting observation in a talk at Berkeley, which is becoming something of a meme. Apologies to those for whom this is obvious, but it was new to me. He pointed that we should distinguish between balance and objectivity in our media. Let me give an example. Evolution is a scientific theory which has a great deal of supporting evidence – possibly as much evidence as almost any scientific theory. (I agree with Karl Popper that scientific theories are disproven, not proven, so I won’t say it has been proved.) There are, however, many people in the world who believe various creation myths for which there is no evidence. The Miao people of China, for example, believe that a God made the earth and people from spitting and clapping. There are other people who believe that God made the earth in six days, and rested on the seventh. When the media report a story that refers to evolution, they can be objective or they can be balanced. If they are objective, they will report evolution as the correct explanation of how we came to be; and they do not need to refer to any or all of the hundreds of creation myths that exist out there (unless these are in some way relevant to the story). But balance, by contrast, requires that they give some – perhaps equal – airtime to these other explanations, even though they are nothing more than superstitions. The problem is that the media has been cowed into believing that it must be balanced, instead of objective. As Krugman puts it:

The media are desperately afraid of being accused of bias. And that’s partly because there’s a whole machine out there, an organized attempt to accuse them of bias whenever they say anything that the Right doesn’t like. So rather than really try to report things objectively, they settle for being even-handed, which is not the same thing. One of my lines in a column — in which a number of people thought I was insulting them personally — was that if Bush said the Earth was flat, the mainstream media would have stories with the headline: ‘Shape of Earth–Views Differ.’ Then they’d quote some Democrats saying that it was round.

I’m not sure Krugman is right that the problem is mainly fear. I suspect that it is also laziness: it is a lot easier to put up two opposing points of view, in the interests of balance, than it is to take the time to weigh up the evidence and decide what an objective account should be. Whatever the reasons, I found this a useful distinction.

3 thoughts on “More objectivity, less balance, please”

  1. Owen, have you read Wikipedia’s policy on writing from a Neutral Point of View?

    … Unbiased writing does not present only the most popular view; it does not assert the most popular view is correct after presenting all views; it does not assert that some sort of intermediate view among the different views is the correct one. Presenting all points of view says, more or less, that p-ists believe that p, and q-ists believe that q, and that’s where the debate stands at present. Ideally, presenting all points of view also gives a great deal of background on who believes that p and q and why, and which view is more popular (being careful not to associate popularity with correctness). Detailed articles might also contain the mutual evaluations of the p-ists and the q-ists, allowing each side to give its “best shot” at the other, but studiously refraining from saying who won the exchange.

    What if we applied such a standard to journalistic writing?

  2. Dave: that quote from Wikipedia is interesting. I guess I am saying that I don’t want news articles to even try to tell me everyone’s point of view. Lots of people believe in astrology: that does not mean that an objective article about the suitability of a person for a public office should tell me his or her star sign.

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