False Balance: Where dissidence does not belong
October 28, 2013 1 Comment
Two simple, but arguably very important words in that they can be found in the Editorial Guidelines of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Journalistic guidelines regularly refer to due impartiality, and rightly so. Consumers subject to the bias of reporters are in for something like the pure fancy that comes from End Time Radio, Natural News or (where “freedom of choice is not free”) Vaccination News.
Under Impartiality – Breadth and Diversity of Opinion, the BBC Guidelines include:
Across our output as a whole, we must be inclusive, reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion. We must be fair and open-minded when examining the evidence and weighing material facts. We must give due weight to the many and diverse areas of an argument.
News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument. The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality.
The reason I’m focusing on the BBC is because of a direct link to false balance. Australia’s ABC have no parallel and our Australian Broadcasting Standards don’t contain specific attenuation of minority views getting a free ride on the coat tails of the prevailing or scientific consensus. That’s not to say either set of standards is not a useful device in underscoring or complaining about the mess of false balance. It’s just that the BBC have shall we say… history.
Presenting Wonders of the Solar System in 2010, Professor Brian Cox was explaining the impact Jupiter’s gravity has on Earth. He delightfully included in his narration, “Despite the fact astrology is a load of rubbish…”. Dedicated followers of woo complained. One stressed Cox didn’t allow the “alternative opinion”. And before you smirk dear reader, it is that astrologers use “observation and knowledge built over thousands of years”. Oooh yeah. They haz Appeal to Antiquity.
Cox provided a statement to the BBC, which they decided not to publish.
I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation.
This example of how complete nonsense is put forward as equal, or even superior, to schools of thought and theories that are in fact completely settled opens the December 2011 BMJ Editorial by Trevor Jackson, When balance is bias. [Dropbox] [BMJ 2011;343:d8006 doi:10.1136/bmj.d800].
The BBC asked Prof. Steve Jones, emeritus professor of human genetics at University College London, to review the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy of their coverage of science. As one might guess from scanning Australian and British journalistic codes with their liberal peppering of “impartiality”, it was the impact of “due impartiality” that worried Jones. He found the guidelines:
… had a distorting effect, creating a sense of equivalence where there was none, and privileging maverick and dissident views so that they appeared as valid as established scientific fact.
Jones found in areas of science that journalists risked giving the impression there were two equal sides to a story when there were certainly not. By insisting to bring “dissident voices” into settled debates within science, the BBC was guilty of giving an unbalanced view to these same areas.
Jackson’s editorial notes the disastrous effect Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent paper had on the uptake of MMR is in part due to media impartiality. The BMJ reported in 2003 on a study that indicated the media effectively misled the public.
The BBC reported in part:
Most people wrongly believed that doctors and scientists are equally divided over the safety of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, according to new research carried out during the high profile public debate over the vaccine last year.
At the height of the media coverage the impression was created that medical scientists were split down the middle over the vaccine’s safety, including reports of links with autism, say the study’s authors, from Cardiff University.
The report found that 53% of those surveyed at the height of the media coverage assumed that because both sides of the debate received equal coverage, there must be equal evidence for each.
It said only 23% were aware that the bulk of evidence favoured supporters of the vaccine. The authors said their survey would revive the debate about media coverage of MMR and how journalists deal with “minority voices” within science.
The belief that scientists were divided over the safety of MMR was a direct result of journalists seeking balance and led to what we now know as false balance. Face palmingly, head deskingly, infuriatingly, unacceptably in the case of vaccines, it is still underway today. Even worse journalists are dusting off long settled topics and where they should be stressing deception, suggest “debate”. In the video below an individual who is effectively a public health menace was appallingly labelled as an “expert”.
Even if these terms are not utilised in the straight out fashion Channel 7′s Weekend Sunrise recently did, everything is in place for the public to be misled into thinking actual scientific dissent exists over the safety and benefit of vaccination. Indeed today, the moral bankruptcy that accompanies antivaccinationists exceeds those who were taken in by Wakefield. The science is clear. There is no debate to be had. This places the antivaccinationist in a very unique position. A position of denial and deception buttressed by repeated claims of corporate conspiracies and so-called natural alternatives.
This latter rubbish is fed to the public because the natural enemy of the anti-vaccine commentator is scientific consensus. Given an opportunity to deceive the public the antivaccinationist can now introduce a host of irrelevant and false claims which in the context of an interview will create doubt in the minds of the public. In the video below Weekend Sunrise have an unqualified, science illiterate, conspiracy theorist effectively presenting nonsense in response to advice from the Director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance.
Thanks to Channel 7 and @sunriseon7 members of the public may well have been misled. Farmer’s wife Meryl Dorey wants to “extend the hand of friendship” to the NCIRS and conduct a study into vaccinated vs unvaccinated. Yes that meaningless, shrivelled old cherry again. Quite simply it leaves a scam artist looking as though they have skill when they don’t and offering one side of a balanced debate, when in fact that debate simply doesn’t exist. There is certainly no need for an impossible study, but the public cannot know this.
The previous point is one scientists need to keep in mind when asked to appear alongside unqualified saboteurs of public health. There’s nothing that can be said in a few minutes that can assuage the damage done by elevating a skilled prevaricator to your own level in the eyes of the public.
Trevor Jackson concludes in his BMJ editorial:
Meanwhile, some science journalism will continue to be weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Until the notion of due weight becomes just as, if not more, important than impartiality in journalism and science reporting, we need to ask ourselves if those without any weight or those advancing scam debates deserve to be heard at all. Clearly, and helped along by the precedents outlined here by reasonablehank, the answer is no.
Channel 7 have previously presented a scientist “debating” a proven anti-vaccine zealot. True, these enemies of reason are challenged by journalists as to the flaws in their beliefs. Yet that is not the issue. The more often members of the anti-science lobby are given a pedestal from which to preach, the larger will be the percentage of the community that believes a genuine topic of scientific dissent exists. As with climate science, fluoride in drinking water, evolution, conventional medicine and more. In the case of vaccination there simply is no debate.
Vaccination saves lives.