I hate hearing about “both sides” in news pieces. It’s not that I don’t want to hear what people have to say; rather, my complaint is with the whole idea of “presenting both sides”.
I should note that I’ve been a freelance writer for various local and national publications. So let me explain a bit about what the press does before I explain the reasons for my statement.
Journalists and reporters are encouraged to find stories that fill a number of requirements; depending upon their editors’ preferences, they may be looking for background to current events, introducing new discoveries, showing the personal sides to big events, exposing wrongdoing, educating the public, describing controversy, or providing inspiration. (I find it somewhat disheartening that the press is so slanted toward “stories” rather than “news”. I think this reflects a lot of the emphasis on warm-fuzzy human interest elements at the expense of focusing on actual information. Maybe I’m just a jaded scientist, but I like more details and verified facts in my news.) Of course, most news items stories combine several of these aspects.
There are a variety of different kinds of journalists and reporters. Some journalists have large amounts of specialised background in particular fields that they use to understand, put into context, and interpret the news, which enables them to know how to sift through information, evaluate it and present it in a manner that is intelligible to people who aren’t as well-versed.
In contrast, many live media reporters tend to have more background in the presentation of the news, and frequently have to reduce an hour or more of recording down to just a few minutes of “sound bites” arranged in the popular three part news-program format of: When we return, we’ll tell you this amazing news; Here I am telling you this amazing news; and My co-anchor just told you this amazing news.
Okay, you were probably aware of most of that. But to get those Controversies! and New Discoveries! and Inspiring Personal Stories! and Expose Wrongdoings! (excuse me, Expose Alleged Wrongdoings!), they frequently follow the dictate of getting quotes and information from both sides. Of course, sources who can deliver “sexy” sound-bites are especially preferred by live media reporters.
So what’s wrong with presenting both sides? We want balanced reporting, right?
Several things. Firstly, the formula for both sides lends the assumption that “both” means “two”. In real life, there are always more than two sides to anything. Real life is not games of chess or Go with just two opponents. We all know this intellectually, but it gets lost in the usage of “both” and in the constraints of describing controversies in a few minutes of broadcast time or a few inches of column space.
Secondly, reporters (and an alarming number of journalists) will falsely ascribe equal weight to “both sides” of a controversy. This is especially disastrous in science & health reporting. Most journalists and reporters don’t have a sufficient background in the particular science field they are reporting upon to be able to evaluate the quality of the science research. That in itself is not the bad part — the bad part is that what they should be able to evaluate is the background or the integrity of the person who is sourcing the exciting new information to the press.
Let’s face it; scientific research is complex, and without an understanding of the context and the significance of the statistical analyses, new study findings can give the impression that scientists don’t agree on anything. You can find someone (even a someone with a PhD) who disagrees with any given theory or finding. Look long enough, and you can find geologists who don’t believe in plate tectonics, meteorologists who don’t believe in global warming, biologists who don’t believe in evolution, doctors who don’t believe in the need for basic double-blind studies to verify treatments, probably even geographers who don’t believe the earth is round. On the non-science end, I bet you could even find a few teachers who believe that some children can never learn anything.
But that someone, even a person with a background in science or the medicine branch of science, believes something contrary to what the other 99% of their peers trust to be true, does not mean that such contrary views are of equal weight.
Being contrary is not the same thing as being skeptical. Having a novel theory doesn’t automatically mean that a person is a brave pioneer rallying against ossified conventional thinking. Real science is self-correcting, and plenty of former standard, conventional ideas have fallen by the wayside as further research upholds the new ideas. Plate tectonics was a novel idea once, and work by many people has supported the idea, and the idea has also helped explain other aspects of geology, so it is now the conventional paradigm. In real science, if a novel idea repeated fails to be supported by different methods of research, then it is dropped. In fact, researchers test the worth of their ideas by trying to disprove them, rather than by picking out random bits of facts that support them.
Lastly, reporters will often go for the emotional angle, which quickly leads the trail out of reality-based news. “Truthiness” is favored over facts, belief is favored over evidence, testimonials are favored over data results, and of course, a few distraught citizens without any science or medical background are favored over thousands of doctors, hundreds of researchers, and entire libraries of impartially-tested evidence-based practice. “If it bleeds, it leads” and if it doesn’t actually bleed, then impassioned tears are a close second.
Worse, anyone can claim that a set of facts go against their “belief systems” and suddenly magic fairy dust gets sprinkled over the news story, so now any sort of nonsense is acceptable, no matter how foolish or dangerous it is. Unfortunately, things do not cease to exist simply because we decide that we don’t like them, or that they don’t fit the way we believe the world ought to be. Clapping hard enough does not make Tinkerbell real.
What would you think of a news story about the latest Around-The-World race if the reporter felt obliged to give equal time to “both sides” by interviewing someone who believed in a Flat Earth?
What would you think of a news story about an earthquake if the reporter felt obliged to give equal time to “both sides” by interviewing a seismologist and someone who claimed that earthquakes were due to the movement by the giant animal that holds up the world?
What would you think of a news story about children with autism if the reporter felt obliged to give equal time to “both sides” by interviewing a geneticist and a parent who believes in a world-wide conspiracy by numbers of governments and pharmaceutical companies who want to poison children’s brains?
[edited to correct typographical error]