Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Journalists should avoid false balance; fact vs. opinion skews Flint water crisis coverage

Tara Haelle
Journalists have a responsibility to report balanced stories, writes Tara Haelle, medical studies core topic leader for the Association of Health Care Journalists. "It is a journalist’s job to objectively and fairly represent the various perspectives on an issue, and it’s a journalist’s responsibility to report facts to represent an issue as accurately as possible."

A recent example of facts versus opinions affecting a story has been the ongoing crisis of high lead levels in water in Flint, Mich., she writes. While Gov. Rick Snyder has declared a state of emergency and Environmental Protection Agency studies have documented high levels of lead in water, Bill Ballenger, a well-known Republican political analyst, former state lawmaker and Flint resident, suggested on his radio show "that the crisis is an overreaction or even a hoax because his own blood levels don’t test high for lead. Subsequently, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said, 'Let’s wait and see what the facts show,' according to the Detroit Free Press."

"Ballenger and Patterson are entitled to think Flint’s water is just fine," Haelle writes. "They’re even entitled to say it, just as anyone can claim the Earth is flat, the moon landing didn’t happen, the sun circles the Earth and cavemen rode dinosaurs. But the facts reveal a real crisis that every other politician inside and outside Michigan is taking seriously. Writing about them with any bit of credibility is a case of classic false balance: using outliers’ voices to state opinions that contradict the facts simply to provide 'balance' to a story. Ballenger and Patterson aren’t the underdogs being ignored by the powers that be. They ARE the powers that be. The underdogs are the thousands of children who will suffer lifelong consequences of lead exposure."

"A balanced story would include an explanation of the lead levels and people affected by them," she writes. "It would include a full version of what facts the rest of the media is getting wrong, as this outstanding Vox piece by Flint resident Connor Coyne explains. Politicians claiming there isn’t a problem would, in a factually balanced story, be appropriately cast as ignoring (or covering up) repeated lead levels tests, as was the case in this excellent three-part series from Michigan Public Radio."

"Unfortunately, this phenomenon happens in health reporting, especially in stories about vaccines," she writes. "We see it mostly in smaller markets or in stories by general assignment reporters who are less familiar with the health or science beat. The way the media’s falsely balanced vaccine reporting damaged public health reporting (and consequently public health) is such a well-worn case study that the Columbia Journalism Review featured outstanding coverage of it in Curtis Brainard’s 'Sticking with the Truth.'

"Avoiding false balance doesn’t mean journalists take off their skeptical hat in covering these issues—it’s worth exploring whether the Flint crisis is overblown or what a new study might suggest regarding a risk to a vaccine we haven’t seen before," she writes. "But they should only report scientifically outlier positions if solid evidence supports it, not just because someone is shouting it from their own tiny molehill." (Read more)

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