In the early 1990s, when I was the science editor at the Associated Press, I covered the EPA's development of a report outlining the dangers of second-hand cigarette smoke. That kind of story begged for a comment from the Tobacco Institute, a group formed by the tobacco industry to respond to press inquiries. To cite just one example, a story I wrote about the EPA delaying release of the report sent me to the Tobacco Institute for comment. The comment was an assertion that said nothing substantial about the merits of the report. It did not provide balance. What it did provide was an opportunity for the industry to create doubt about the report. But the AP's editors would not allow me to write such a story without including industry comment.
This is just one example of what reporters and others refer to as false balance--the requirement that stories include a viewpoint opposite to the one being reported.
This is the subject of a post in The Economist, where blogger N.L. discusses a neat hypothetical from British "hack" Nick Davies. Suppose reporters are asked to write about tomorrow's weather. They interview a man who says it will rain. And a woman who says it won't. Perfect! A balanced report! But wait, says Davies. That's false balance. "Your job is to look out the window." Further, it's a reporter's job to find out whether the man forecasting rain is an umbrella salesman.
N.L. links to a series in The Chicago Tribune that begins with a burn surgeon talking about the tragic death of a baby in a fire and calling for legislation to require flame retardants in pillows. He seems like a legitimate spokesman, with a legitimate point of view. But the Tribune describes him as "a star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants." In other words, he's selling umbrellas.
N.L. also links to a New York Times story reporting that President Obama has criticized reporters' reliance on false balance in their stories. "Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts," writes Amy Chozick in the Times story.
But then, N.L. notes with glee, Chozick falls into the false balance trap herself, later in the story. Seeking comment, she asks a political leftist and a conservative what they think about false balance. They say predictable things that add nothing to the story.
N.L. is not suggesting that we abandon any effort to evaluate opposing viewpoints. "Let me end, though, with a word in favour of balance. There are many issues that demand such an approach. We don't always know the truth, and some questions are hard to answer definitively." But the important point, he writes, is that a balanced approach should deal in substance, "not traded insults."
Reporters need to use their judgment to distinguish between false balance and appropriate balance. Our job is not only to look out the window, but to think. That's what separates a reporter from a transcriptionist.