False balance - a problem in journalistic reporting

April 2022 | Christina Jacob
last updated on 26. June 2023

The phenomenon is not new, the debates surrounding Covid-19 have only made it clear: false balance. It does not denote an imbalance between two different positions - on the contrary.

False balance means the equal comparison of two positions that are to be evaluated differently.

Almost every day on television at the moment: talk shows in which scientists, journalists and politicians sit around a table and debate highly topical issues so that as many positions as possible can be discussed. It is part of the claim of journalism to always illuminate both sides of the same coin, to present the pros and cons of a certain topic so that the readers and viewers can then form their own opinion. However, when two unequal partners face each other in the discussion, the supposed balance creates a distorted picture because they speak of different medals.

The best example is climate change: if a scientist, whose opinion is backed by approx. 97% of his scientific colleagues with verifiable studies, and a climate denier discuss the connection between CO2 emissions and global warming, then the minority opinion wrongly gets more weight. It could give the impression that both points of view are to be evaluated equally, that the ratio between pros and cons is 50:50 instead of 97:3.

The problem: In the media, fringe opinions are often contrasted with a scientific consensus. However, if unequal partners are to discuss the pros and cons, the debate is only supposedly balanced. Applying the principle of balanced political consensus-building to science doesn't quite work. What counts in politics is the result, which different parties can often agree on for very different reasons. It is mostly about opinions and considerations that lead to a decision. Science, on the other hand, offers facts that it arrives at through research processes that follow established principles. They are not debatable. However, no truths that apply forever either – new insights lead to new facts. Otherwise we would still be living on a disk.

Avoid false balance

For an honest debate, the two camps should be clearly distinguished from each other and weighted accordingly. Although scientific findings have an influence on political decisions, they are not necessarily responsible for the resulting value-oriented, social and ethical discussion. Example Covid-19 vaccination. It has been proven that vaccination reduces the risk of a severe course of the disease. Which social and ethical decisions are ultimately made is a matter for politicians. And when it comes to reaching a consensus, it is not relevant how the vaccination works in detail at the biochemical level.
This difference should be made clear in the context of a comparison.

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