False balance

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This article is about the media term. For logical fallacy, see Argument to moderation.

False balance, also referred to as false equivalence, is a real or perceived media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports. Journalists may present evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side, or may censor information which would establish one side's claims as baseless.

An example of issues sometimes handled with false balance are pseudoscience, as when a national nightly news program in the United States gave coverage to a backyard inventor who claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine.[citation needed] The program presented scientific authorities to explain why such a device was impossible, but since they gave equal time to the claims of the inventor, it may have created a false impression with audiences that his claims were credible. "Objective coverage" of lynching in the 1890s by US journalists failed, "to recognize a truth, that African-Americans were being terrorized across the nation."[1] False balance is often found in political reports,[2][3][4] company press releases, and general information from entities with special interest groups in promoting their respective agendas.

Other examples of false balance in reporting on science issues include the topics of man-made vs. natural climate change, the relation between Thiomersal and autism[5] and evolution vs. intelligent design.[6] For instance, although the scientific community attributes a component of climate change of the last 50–100 years, particularly global warming, to the effects of the industrial revolution,[7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20] there are a small number of scientists who dispute this conclusion.[21][22][23] Giving equal voice to scientists on both sides makes it seem like there is a debate within the scientific community, even though there is a scientific consensus.

False balance can sometimes originate from similar motives as sensationalism, where 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 actually stem from an 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, giving them equal time to present their views even when those views may be known beforehand to be based on false information.[24]

Global warming[edit]

A study conducted by Jules Boykoff and Maxwell Boykoff found that in the case of global warming, for example, a much more apparent consensus within the scientific community had been reached than the media made it seem. NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988 that he was "99 percent certain" burning fossil fuels was one of the factors that caused temperatures to rise. That same year, the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC), which went on to produce a steady stream of reports supporting Hansen’s claim that humans are contributing to global warming. Yet, while over 3,500 articles on global warming appeared between 1988 and 2002 just in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, 53 percent of these stories gave roughly equal attention to scientists who expressed views that global warming was caused by humans as they did to those who said global warming was caused by nature.[25]

Jules and Maxwell Boykoff use the lead paragraph of a 1992 front-page article from The Los Angeles Times, as an example:

The ability to study climatic patterns has been critical to the debate over the phenomenon called "global warming." Some scientists believe—and some ice core studies seem to indicate—that humanity's production of carbon dioxide is leading to a potentially dangerous overheating of the planet. But skeptics contend there is no evidence the warming exceeds the climate's natural variations.

This paragraph puts scientists against skeptics, as though both are on equal grounds of knowledge, when in reality the scientists (even in 1992) have far more reason to believe that humanity is causing temperatures to rise than skeptics have to disagree.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mindich, David T. Z (1998). Just the Facts: How "objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-5613-1. 
  2. ^ Montopoli, Brian (2004-10-14). "Falling Over Backward Seeking Balance : Columbia Journalism Review". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 2011-03-02. 
  3. ^ "Post-debate fact checks struck false "balance" for the fourth time". Media Matters for America. 2004-10-14. Retrieved 2011-03-02. 
  4. ^ Rendall, Steve (November 2003). "An Aggressive Conservative vs. a "Liberal to be Determined" : The false balance of Hannity & Colmes". FAIR—Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. Retrieved 2011-03-02. 
  5. ^ Gross L (2009). "A broken trust: lessons from the vaccine--autism wars". PLoS Biol 7 (5): 756–9. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000114. PMC 2682483. PMID 19478850. 
  6. ^ Committee on Revising Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (2008). Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. ISBN 0-309-10586-2. 
  7. ^ Joint science academies’ statement: Global response to climate change, 2005 
  8. ^ America's Climate Choices: Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change; National Research Council (2010). Advancing the Science of Climate Change. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. ISBN 0-309-14588-0. 
  9. ^ Unger, Nadine; Tami C. Bond; James S. Wang; Dorothy M. Koch; Surabi Menon; Drew T. Shindell; Susanne Bauer (2010-02-23). "Attribution of climate forcing to economic sectors". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107 (8): 3382–3387. Bibcode:2010PNAS..107.3382U. doi:10.1073/pnas.0906548107. Retrieved 2011-02-25. 
  10. ^ Committee on Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, National Research Council (2006). Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. ISBN 0-309-10225-1. 
  11. ^ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — National Climatic Data Center. "NCDC: Greenhouse Gases - Frequently Asked Questions". Retrieved 2011-02-23. 
  12. ^ Modern Atmospheric Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide : Global Warming. NASA Earth Observatory. 
  13. ^ Rowland, F. Sherwood; Bren, Donald (2001-06-28). "Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions". National Academies of Science. Retrieved 2011-02-25. 
  14. ^ Benton, George S. (October 1970). "Carbon Dioxide and its Role in Climate Change". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 67 (2): 898–899. Bibcode:1970PNAS...67..898B. doi:10.1073/pnas.67.2.898. 
  15. ^ US EPA, OAR (2006-10-19). "Recent Climate Change - Atmosphere Changes". Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  16. ^ "Climate Change: Causes". Climate Change: NASA's Eyes on the Earth. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  17. ^ American Geophysical Union (December 2003). "AGU Position Statement: Human Impacts on Climate". American Geophysical Union. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  18. ^ American Meteorological Society (2007-02-01). "AMS Information Statement on Climate Change". American Meteorological Society. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  19. ^ The Geological Society of America (April 2010). "The Geological Society of America - Position Statement on Global Climate Change". The Geological Society of America. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  20. ^ American Physical Society (2007-11-18). "Climate Change". American Physical Society. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  21. ^ Anderegg, William R. L.; James W. Prall; Jacob Harold; Stephen H. Schneider (2010-07-06). "Expert credibility in climate change". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (27): 12107–12109. Bibcode:2010PNAS..10712107A. doi:10.1073/pnas.1003187107. PMC 2901439. PMID 20566872. Retrieved 2011-02-23. 
  22. ^ Oreskes, Naomi (2004-12-03). "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change". Science 306 (5702): 1686. doi:10.1126/science.1103618. PMID 15576594. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  23. ^ Peter T. Doran; Maggie Kendall Zimmerman (2009-01-20). "Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change". Eos 90 (3): 22–23. Bibcode:2009EOSTr..90...22D. doi:10.1029/2009EO030002. 
  24. ^ Krugman, Paul (January 30, 2006). "A False Balance". New York Times. 
  25. ^ http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/sciencetoolkit_04 Beware of false balance: Are the views of the scientific community accurately portrayed?
  26. ^ http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978 Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias", FAIR, Boykoff, Jules, and Boykoff, Maxwell

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