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When news balance isn't balanced

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This morning I came across an article called 5 Things The Media Loves Pretending Are News (warning: course language). I particularly liked it because it mentions one of my biggest annoyances with news reporting: "Let's Ask the Idiots About Science".

All journalists are taught a basic principle of good reporting: Present both sides to any argument. If a politician presents a certain point of view, get an interview with an opposing politician who provides "balance". In theory this makes sure that the public gets all the necessary information to make a fair judgement. Of course it also encourages the age-old adversarial system in which opposition politicians are relegated to the role of complainer but that's another story.

Things get unstuck when there isn't really a valid opposing point of view, or when the "balance" isn't very balanced at all. If a scientist presents the results of a new study, it's perfectly acceptable to speak to other scientists who disagree or present alternative results. That's balance. It is not acceptable or desirable to speak to some unqualified conspiracy theorist with an innate distrust of science. Why not? Because it's not balanced. You have a weighty expert on one side being "balanced" by a lightweight amateur on the other side. Balanced output can only be achieved when there is balanced input.

Science reporting is one of the most seriously flawed areas of the news media. The article refers to the "-gate" phenomena which reminds me of "climate-gate", a terribly mis-represented and misleading ongoing news topic. We've heard from a thousand "climate change skeptics" (a misnomer if ever I heard one) but how many nobel prize-winng physicists have been quoted? If you want to know how and why scientists manipulate data, you won't get the true picture by doing a vox-pop survey in the street or by talking to people with a vested interest in denying climate change. Instead you need to do employ someone who understands the science environment to thoroughly analyze the situation.

Unfortunately that's not only difficult, expensive and time-consuming, but it makes for less dramatic news. Who wants to listen to some nerd explain that individual scientists do stupid things but science on the whole has procedures to counter data manipulation? Much more interesting to call it the climate-gate scandal.

And don't get me started on medicine. "Here's a new scientific study that shows homeopathy doesn't work, and here's a panel of scientists explaining how the results were determined. Now, for balance, here's a homeopath who says all scientists are wrong but doesn't have any evidence except some anecdotes. And we certainly won't mention the placebo effect."

I could go on all day but if you've read this far you deserve a rest. Thanks for listening. Feel free to provide some "balance" in the comments

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