In an article in the New York Times, Anemona Hartocollis details the emotional aftermath of the presidential election as it played out on college campuses. Those who won, it seems, have suddenly come to understand the need for “safe spaces” and are resentful of administrations, fellow students, and academics who don’t seem to hold sufficient space for their feelings of elation at winning.
At any rate, midway through the article, Hortocollis writes:
Bias incidents on both sides have been reported. A student walking near campus was threatened with being lit on fire because she wore a hijab. Other students were accused of being racist for supporting Mr. Trump, according to a campuswide message from Mark Schlissel, the university’s president.
We’ve been through this, America. We continue to deal with the aftermath of a guilty compulsion to provide “balance” in journalistic storytelling, to give a “he said” whenever we offer up a “she said.” It’s happened with vaccines and autism, with every article on the subject for years giving voice to self-aggrandizing demagogues who are completely full of shit while undermining public health and threatening children’s lives. It’s happened with climate change science, with naysayers and data deniers given equal time in articles offering evidence-based consensus views.
It’s a strange compulsion, this need to look for a counterpoint to every claim. Not every story has “another side.” Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. We don’t need someone who believes it’s not to be dragged into a narrative to ramble on about their distorted perspective on stogies.
Perhaps the New York Times editors and Hortocollis felt that when they mentioned “bias incidents,” they needed to dig for examples on both “sides.” OK. But no fair representation of reality would equate, as this story does, a threat to burn a woman alive because of her attire with calling someone a racist for voting for the man whom the white nationalists consider “their hero.”
When journalists dutifully drag in an opposing viewpoint, the intent usually is to include voices on all sides as a nod to balance or to temper an opinion or an interpretation. When the perspectives carry equal relevance, it’s a fair thing to do and communicates appropriate objectivity.
But dragging in ‘balance’ simply as a gesture, without any legitimate argument that it carries is relevant, introduces falseness into the narrative, achieving precisely the opposite of what journalism should do.
False balance fueled and continues to fuel misleading and untrue narratives about vaccines and autism and about climate change. Those both are critical issues, and the choice to include an empty balance on one side and call it weight has caused and will continue to cause immeasurable harm.
This problem is a known issue. So well known, in fact, that current election season apologist and national embarassment Liz Spayd, the New York Times’ public editor, wrote about it in September. In her column, she modestly offers her own publication as the Great Martyr when it comes to being accused of false balance:
This is where The New York Times comes in. Invariably it is the news organization most associated with the ignoble cause of seeking balanced coverage. I suspect The Times is a preferred target for two reasons. It has aggressively covered Clinton going back to Whitewater. And it’s the big gorilla in the room.
She then goes on in a defensive, embarrassing excuse for why the New York Times focused so relentlessly on on the Clinton Foundation without attending sufficiently to Donald Trump’s seemingly endless list of conflicts of interest. It’s darkly humorous now to read such pompous blather as:
If Trump is unequivocally more flawed than his opponent, that should be plenty evident to the voting public come November.
That “if,” in hindsight, should be cause for resignation. Spayd continues:
But it should be evident from the kinds of facts that bold and dogged reporting unearths, not from journalists being encouraged to impose their own values to tip the scale.
Better that the scale be tipped with something of value than with a big old nothing dangerously dressed up to look like something.