Faux balance and poor research creates a false narrative

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The modern journalistic practice of taking the most extreme talking points from those opposing and interviewees position, rather than doing actual research, misinforms the public, says David Horton.

(Image via Toles /

THE STANDARD PRACTICE of mainstream journalists is to interview by taking the worst most extreme antitheses and/or "talking points" from deniers (for example), and using them as questions for climate scientists (for example). Similarly, in interviewing a Labor minister, the questions are obtained from the most recent talking points issued by the Liberal Party. This practice has become so ubiquitous as to be accepted as merely "the way things are done".

I guess if you asked a journalist about this they would, after expressing surprise that you were questioning this approach, express a couple of reasons for it. One would be that it saves time; that journalists, in this time of media cost-cutting and job-shedding, are simply unable to research a topic in any meaningful way before doing an interview. Indeed, I suspect that the idea of "research" being anything except reading something from an opponent is now foreign to journalism in Australia.

The other thing they might well say, in the Manichaean world that is modern Australian journalism, is that by acting as the mouthpiece for the most extreme opposing view to that of the interview subject, they are giving the viewer/listener/reader the benefit of the full range of opinion available on a topic. That to oppose the Light not with the Dark, but merely with the Twilight would be to exhibit unpardonable bias, to not be giving the audience the complete 'he said, she said' experience so essential to modern journalism.

They might, if especially thoughtful, suggest that it is indeed their role, their purpose, to act as the megaphone for the opposing view. That the only proper way to present a topic is in debate format, with two equal and opposite debaters seated in two chairs separated by a scrupulously-balanced-on-a-fence presenter. And that, failing that possibility, for, say, logistical reasons, it is the interviewer's job to get off the fence and sit in the other chair, in loco parentis for the opposition.

(Image via ABC Media Watch)

Now, pardon me for being an old-fashioned – indeed retrograde – curmudgeon, whose ideas about the media and journalists have remained irretrievably stuck in the nineteenth century, but this is balderdash and hogwash.

The job of the journalist is to speak for the public, not for the opposition, and certainly not for their proprietor and his (inevitably) rich friends. (It is almost invariably the case that it is only thought necessary to give voice to the other extreme of opinion when the interviewee is even mildly to the left, an interviewee from the Right is considered to already embody that full range of acceptable opinion referred to as Common Sense). They are the ones, given that once honourable badge of office – the microphone – who get to speak for the millions of citizens without a voice, sitting at home screaming obscenities at the television, or putting newspapers into the cat's tray. It is not one hand holding a microphone, but the hands of millions, and the journalist should be asking the questions they want asked.

Yes, yes, of course, it is a big ask — but the way to answer the call, to hear the people sing, is to do your own research.

Let me say that again, since it seems such a strange concept: do your own research.

The opponents of whatever the issue is already have their own microphones, have their seat in parliament, have their tame shock-jocks and right wing bloggers and columnists. Their voices are loud in the land and they are voices inevitably based on a potent mix of ideology and vested interest.

Doing research, real research – that is, reading the facts and obtaining the data about the issue from a variety of reliable sources – turns the journalist into Everywoman (or, of course, Everyman), the voice of the people, not the voice of Rupert (vox populi, not vox dei). People are not interested in 'he said, she said' journalism games, where they are told, first, that the world is round and then, equally convincingly a moment later, that it is flat.

They want, I think, a journalist who has done enough research to know that "the world is flat" theory is a dead duck (an ex-parrot), and can therefore ask questions, based on its roundness, about, say, seasonality, or airline schedules.

So there's that — the interviewer should, as far as possible, be in touch with the real world, provide the context in which to place the latest ideas about climate or drugs or economics and so on, ask the interviewee informed questions, know enough to stop the flow of bullshit if it begins.

But there is more and I have touched on this important issue a number of times before.

The problem is this: when a journalist adopts the propositions put out by conservative politician, climate change denier, anti-vaxer, tobacco company, et al, and uses them to question, say, economists, climate scientists, doctors, and so on, he or she is, in effect, providing the nutters and ratbags with a cloak of respectability. Giving the wild-eyed basement-dweller a stage and one of two chairs – equal weight – in a studio is one thing and very bad it is too. But at least in that situation the wild-eyes are clearly visible squinting into the camera lens.

But when a journalist uses the cyclostyled press release from the Flat Earth Society to create and then ask questions, those questions are then being asked by an apparently normal, non-squint-eyed, functional and rather appealing person, and are thereby given credibility by this advocate they would not have had if their originator was asking them. Furthermore, with most people having little, if any, idea how modern journalism is done, the questions gain an even greater spurious authority by being apparently based on independent research by the objective Voice of the People.

So, when a journalist asks, say: "Why is it that global temperatures haven't increased in 15 years", the viewer assumes that, in fact, global temperatures haven't, you know, increased in 15 years — see, told you, Alan Jones and Christopher Monckton were right.

By contrast, a journalist who did some research would ask:
"We know global temperatures are rising as fast as ever, could you explain how the heat is being distributed between land and ocean, and the effects of the Southern Oscillation Index on year to year variations."

Quite different information and impressions are conveyed to the audience.

Same with questions like "What are you going to do with out of control government debt?" or "The large number of cases of autism caused by vaccination means that parents should be cautious about immunising their children, don't they?"

So, my question to the Journalist is this - "your profession is now notorious for being stenographers to power and for creating false balance narratives which damage public policy, when are you going to return to research-based journalism?" Fair question do you think?

You can follow David Horton on Twitter @watermelon_man. Read also managing editor David Donovan's satire on this issue:  Leigh Salesperson interviews Dr Craig Emerson on ABC $7.30.

Creative Commons LicenceThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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