Starting with the first article they write, journalists learn to seek balance, objectivity and facts in their reporting. Balance often is translated into giving various viewpoints equal weight in an article.
But do journalists always have to give equal weight to discordant opinions
on a subject even when there is no/minuscule scientific credibility for
I’ve been wondering lately if that traditional idea of balance best serves the public, or would journalists better serve the public by weighting their reports based on the credibility of the research available?
Examples of where this could be important that easily come to mind are stories on the vaccine-autism connection and water fluoridation.
The scientific community doesn’t take seriously the theory that vaccines cause
autism — other than the fact that parents refusing to
vaccinate their children threatens the public’s health. So when
writing about this issue, should a journalist represent an
anti-vaccination advocate as a source as equally credible as a
vaccination expert? In other words, should Jenny McCarthy’s opinion that a
vaccine caused autism in her son be taken as seriously as a vaccination
Take another case: community water fluoridation. It is widely accepted by public health
professionals to be the most cost-effective way to keep people’s teeth
healthy. It’s particularly important in low-income communities where
children have poor access to dental care. When covering a community
debate on water fluoridation, should a journalist devote equal space to
the anti-fluoridation activists and public health folks?
Here’s what he said.
"This is a question that has bugged me for a long time. And I hear more health care journalists chafing at the "equal weight" requirement that some editors impose on them in such "he said/she said" health, medical or science stories.
I do not think that we are living up to our duties of responsible reporting when we include perspectives — or balance the weight of perspectives — simply because another perspective exists. With complex medical science topics, we need to be an intelligent filter for readers and viewers. First of all we need to be smart enough to be able to evaluate the quality of the evidence. But, second, when we do so and the evidence gives a very clear picture we should say so. You can nod in the direction of other perspectives but equal time and space seems ludicrous in some stories.
Two tenets of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Statement of Principles (disclosure: I was the primary author) seem to apply to this question:
- Consider public interest the primary criterion when choosing which stories to report.
- Distinguish between advocacy and reporting. — There are many sides in a health care story. It is not the job of the journalist to take sides, but to present an accurate, balanced and complete report.
As I think about your question, the public interest is not served by a story that paints a picture of equipoise for the evidence behind conflicting theories when it really doesn’t exist. Yet, this line must be walked carefully.