Issues by definition are contested matters on which there is genuine disagreement over facts or opinions. So what happens if there is no legitimate counter-argument? What happens if news media attempts at ‘balance’ simply give credibility to false claims which no longer merit debate?
This is the proposition argued by News Limited writer Jo Thornely in response to a lengthy promotion piece in the Daily Mail Australia by prominent anti-vaccination campaigner Tasha David. And it has important implications for the way controversial issues are managed.
In a widely reprinted recent column, Thornely argued that it is simply not ok for any serious news outlet to give “a bizarre amount of oxygen” to claims that vaccines cause problems such as autism and ADHD when such allegations have been resoundingly debunked by health experts around the world. “There’s no other side to the debate. In fact there is no debate,” she wrote. “A debate occurs when there are two different opinions of potentially comparable weight. Believing that vaccines cause autism in the face of zero reliable evidence is like claiming that gravity is rubbish, yet refusing to float upwards.”
Her comments triggered a predictable flood of both pro and anti responses. Yet the underlying question of whether the media should give voice to certain issue activists is more fundamental, and it’s not a new idea. A much-cited editorial in the British Medical Journal in 2011 was provocatively titled “When balance is bias.” It argued that while the journalistic quest for objectivity and impartiality was understandable in coverage of politics and arts, it was ridiculous to demand balance in science communication.
“The media insistence on giving equal weight to both the views of the anti-vaccine camp and to the overwhelming body of scientific evidence exonerating the (MMR) vaccine from its alleged adverse effects made people think that scientists themselves were divided over the safety of the vaccine, which they were not.” The result, they said, was “false balance” which, in the case of the MMR vaccine, helped fuel a public health disaster.
Or as MediaWatch TV host Paul Barry has commented on the same subject: “To put it bluntly, there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’. Especially when people’s health is at risk.” Look no further than the recent death from whooping cough of four-week-old Riley Hughes in Western Australia which triggered national headlines and a shortage of vaccine for adult protection.
However the BMJ editorial questioned journalists’ capacity and willingness to decide where the truth lies. “Given that scientists are not always expert communicators,” they said, “there is a real risk that the anti-science view will hold sway.”
This raises important questions about the role of the news media in the way issues are reported. And challenges the way issue managers deal with the media. No-one is arguing that this is a case for shutting down legitimate debate on controversial issues. But it’s certainly clear that we need to help scientists communicate better. And maybe there really are some exceptional issues – like anti-vaccination – where there simply is no room for debate.