Tag Archives: media bias

Why we need to hear what controversial people say and not silence the debate

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

We who live in Western liberal democracies seem to be in a permanent state of angst about who should be allowed to speak and what they should be allowed to speak about.

This angst is acute at the moment, since low-key voices that once represented extreme views on a range of social issues have recently become louder.

Whether it’s US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump denigrating refugees and talking of banning Muslims from entering his country or Australia’s One Nation leader and senator-elect Pauline Hanson rubbishing climate science and talking of banning Muslims from entering her country, this joltingly aggressive posturing has found traction with voters.

It’s not uncommon to hear people applaud this approach because, after all, they “speak their mind”. But what is so good about speaking your mind if it’s a jumbled mess of self-contradiction?

Even if the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of Trump and Hanson, as two examples, are generally incoherent, could there be any good points worth exploring buried under the intellectual rubble? Either way, should we be listening?

Let me make the case for why these views should be heard, with attention to specific contexts and principles.

You can speak your mind

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his 1784 essay What is the Enlightenment?, wrote of the need for public reason.

He highlighted the desirability for those in the public arena, and particularity those holding or vying for power, to spell out their thinking so that we can make up our own individual minds based on a rational analysis of the case rather than a simple appeal to emotions.

A necessary condition of this is that people not only speak their minds, but must lay out the reasoned argument that leads them to their position. It is the argument, not just the end position, that demands evaluation, for only through this process can we establish the credibility of the end point.

This requirement for a common language of rationality is, we hope, what leads to the best outcomes in the long run. It protects us from leaders acting on whims or in their own interests.

It’s also a bulwark against a world where only shouted slogans and appeals to fear make up the substance of public discourse. A world William Yeats glimpsed in his poem The Second Coming when he wrote of a time in which:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Divergence of opinion, in which people can simply speak their minds, and hopefully their thinking, is desirable. But this divergence must be followed by a phase of convergence in which alternative views are evaluated and consequently progressed or discarded based on collaboratively established norms of effective reasoning.

Each time we hear a poorly argued view, it should further inoculate us against accepting that view.

If arguments for particular positions with relevance to public life ought be exposed to public scrutiny, they must therefore be listened to and seriously engaged with by at least some people some of the time.

Listen for only so long

We do not, however, have the responsibility to elevate a view beyond the point it can attain through its own persuasiveness. Nor are we obliged to keep giving it our attention after its credibility is found wanting.

Appeals for another hearing without fresh arguments or evidence have no inherent right to be further entertained. Such is the nature of debate in young-earth creationism, anti-vaccination advocates or climate change denial, wherein the same old constantly refuted arguments come up again for another desperate gasp of public air.

It is fine to insist that an argument be evaluated on the proving ground of public reason. But it is an offence against that same principle to demand it stay on the playing field once it has been effectively refuted. A sure test of this unwarranted persistence is the degree to which reasoned argument is replaced by tub-thumping, fear-mongering and appeals to the status quo.

People are free to keep saying what they like but, as I have written before, they should not mistake the right to speak with the right to be heard once their case has already failed to convince.

The debate is therefore not silenced, but reaches closure through established, socially moderated processes of analysis and evaluation. All else is cheer-leading in an attempt to convince others that you are still on the field. But the rest of us are entitled to just go home.

Who decides what becomes public?

This all sounds quite rational, but who are the gatekeepers of the public arena? This is a complex issue. In an ideal world, the entry ticket would be a reasoned case in the public interest, but too many box seats have been pre-sold to vested interests.

So we see media companies such as News Corp pushing arguments against climate science that have long been discredited. And across the board news items and personalities that are sensational rather than significant are placed front and centre.

Media coverage of those speaking publicly is always a decision, and it’s a decision that exposes bias. Not just for who is heard, but also for who is not heard.

Take, for example, the claim that moderate Muslims do not speak out against extremism. The plethora of cases in which this does occur are not given a high profile.

We are not obliged to give someone attention, let alone credibility, simply because they are speaking in public. The Enlightenment principles of public reasoning are conditional, and too often these conditions are not met or simply not understood.

But our acceptance and our rejection of views should always be a reflective practice, measured against long-established norms of rationality.

No one should be silenced, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be listened to.

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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False balance

by Tim Harding

False balance, is a form of deliberate or unintended media bias, in which opposing viewpoints are presented as being more balanced than the evidence warrants.  The media gives weight to evidence and opinions out of proportion to the supporting evidence for each side, and/or withholds information that would establish one side’s claims as baseless.  The impression is given of a scientific or evidence-based debate, where there is actually none. The fallacy is related to false equivalence, but is not quite the same. 

balance

Source: University of California Museum of Paleontology[1]
(used with permission)

This fallacy is also known as ‘Okrent’s law’ named after Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of The New York Times newspaper . He once said: “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true,” referring to the phenomenon of the press providing legitimacy to fringe or minority viewpoints in an effort to appear even-handed.

A notorious instance of false balance occurred on 16th August 2012, when WIN TV in Wollongong aired a news story about a measles outbreak in South-West Sydney.  The story appeared to give equal weight to the professional advice of a medical practitioner that everyone should be immunised (against measles); versus an amateur opinion by Meryl Dorey of the so-called Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). Ms. Dorey claimed that ‘All vaccinations in the medical literature have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine.’  The TV reporter concluded ‘Choice groups are calling for greater research into the measles vaccine’.

The ABC’s Media Watch program was scathing in its criticism of this news story:

‘Choice groups’. They actually only quoted one group, which claims that it’s in favour of the public having a choice. But Meryl Dorey’s deceptively-named Australian Vaccination Network is in fact an obsessively anti-vaccination pressure group that’s immunised itself against the effect of scientific evidence.  Dorey’s claim about the medical literature linking vaccination and autism is pure, unadulterated baloney.[2]

On the Media Watch web site, there is a link to a long statement by the NSW Director of Health Protection, Dr. Jeremy McAnulty. Amongst other things, he says that:

Any link between measles vaccine and autism has been conclusively discredited by numerous in-depth studies and reviews by credible experts, including the World Health Organisation, the American Academy of Paediatrics and the UK Research Council. Statements erroneously linking measles vaccine and autism were associated with a decline in measles vaccination, which led to a measles outbreak in the UK in the past.[3]

Jonathon Holmes of Media Watch went on to say:

So why on earth, we asked WIN TV, did it include the AVN’s misleading claims in a news story about a measles outbreak?… Medical practitioners – choice groups. One opinion as valid as the other. It’s a classic example of what many – especially despairing scientists – call ‘false balance’ in the media…To put it bluntly, there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’. Especially when people’s health is at risk.[2]

As the British Medical Journal put it last year in an editorial about the ‘debate’ in the UK:

The media’s insistence on giving equal weight to both the views of the anti-vaccine camp and to the overwhelming body of scientific evidence …made people think that scientists themselves were divided over the safety of the vaccine, when they were not. [4]

Other common examples of false balance in media reporting on science issues include the topics of man-made vs. natural climate change and evolution vs. creationism, as well as medicine vs quackery. As the Understanding Science web site says:

Balanced reporting is generally considered good journalism, and balance does have its virtues. The public should be able to get information on all sides of an issue — but that doesn’t mean that all sides of the issue deserve equal weight. Science works by carefully examining the evidence supporting different hypotheses and building on those that have the most support. Journalism and policies that falsely grant all viewpoints the same scientific legitimacy effectively undo one of the main aims of science: to weigh the evidence.[1]

False balance can sometimes originate from similar motives as sensationalism, where media producers and editors may feel that a story portrayed as a contentious debate will be more commercially successful to pursue than a more accurate account of the issue. However, unlike most other media biases, false balance may ironically stem from a misguided attempt to avoid bias; producers and editors may confuse treating competing views fairly—i.e., in proportion to their actual merits and significance—with treating them equally, by giving them equal time to present their views even when those views may be known beforehand to be based on false or unreliable information. In other words, two sides of a debate are automatically and mistakenly assumed to have equal value regardless of their respective merits.

References

[1] Beware of false balance: Are the views of the scientific community accurately portrayed? Understanding Science. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 25 February 2014 http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/sciencetoolkit_04

[2] False Balance Leads To Confusion Media Watch Episode 35, 1 October 2012, ABC1. http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3601416.htm

[3] Media Statement – Immunisation. Dr. Jeremy McAnulty, Director of Health Protection, NSW Health, 28th September, 2012.

[4] When balance is bias. British Medical Journal, Christmas Edition, 2011.

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