New public editor at New York Times engages the “false balance” conundrum
How far should journalists reach in trying to judge when one side is simply wrong on the facts?
September 17, 2012Published: September 17, 2012
By Steven T. Corneliussen
Is the New York Times backing away from its longstanding certainty about the validity of scientists' climate consensus? Many in the scientific community will want to be aware that the Times's 16 September column by new public editor Margaret Sullivan has engaged what the Atlantic's James Fallows and others call "false equivalence" in news reporting. The challenge comes up with nearly any topic, but it has special public relevance in the climate wars. In 2005, climatologists at the blog RealClimate began calling it "the false objectivity of 'balance'."
The Times explains that its public editor "works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about news and other coverage," offering opinions and conclusions of her own. Sullivan is fifth to serve in the position.
Her recent column defines "false balance [as] the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side." She adds: "And many people are fed up with it. They don't want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers." She sees a new movement in journalism "to present the truth, not just conflicting arguments leading to confusion."
But she also stipulates that the "trick" is "to identify the established truth." She emphasizes that this "is not always such an easy call." Sometimes, she says, the demand for "just the facts" is really a demand for someone's own version of the facts.
Her recent column analyzes false-balance debates arising from recent political news, and then offers two examples from science news. She mentions and quotes the Times's response to the intelligent-design dispute:
The Times responded [with] language like this: "There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth. Courts have repeatedly ruled that creationism and intelligent design are religious doctrines, not scientific theories."
She also notes that the false-balance question comes up regularly concerning human-caused climate disruption. "The Times has moved," she reports, "toward regularly writing, in its own voice, that mounting evidence indicates humans are indeed causing climate change, but it does not dismiss the skeptics altogether."
Has the Times really "moved" away from certainty about scientists' climate consensus? In February, a Times news article reported on assertions that "whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy." The article stipulated unambiguously that it "is in fact not a scientific controversy."
That article aligned with what the RealClimate bloggers wrote in 2005. In their opening paragraph, they declared themselves "disappointed with the tendency for some journalistic outlets to favor so-called 'balance' over accuracy in their treatment of politically controversial scientific issues such as global climate change." The group of prominent climatologists asserted that while "giving equal coverage to two opposing sides may seem appropriate in political discourse, it is manifestly inappropriate in discussions of science, where objective truths exist."
But Sullivan has now suggested that the subjects of her journalistic watchfulness no longer "dismiss the skeptics altogether." If that's so, the Times will be less likely to "identify [as] established truth" the rest of that RealClimate opening paragraph from 2005:
In the case of climate change, a clear consensus exists among mainstream researchers that human influences on climate are already detectable, and that potentially far more substantial changes are likely to take place in the future if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates. There are only a handful of "contrarian" climate scientists who continue to dispute that consensus. To give these contrarians equal time or space in public discourse on climate change out of a sense of need for journalistic "balance" is as indefensible as, say, granting the Flat Earth Society an equal say with NASA in the design of a new space satellite. It's plainly inappropriate. But it stubbornly persists nonetheless.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.