Has ‘false balance’ become self-evidently wrong?

Featured image credit: mistermoss/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Journalism’s engagement with a convergent body of knowledge is an interesting thing in two ways. From the PoV of the body, journalism is typically seen as an enabler, an instrument for furthering goals and which is adjacent at best until it begins to have an adverse effect on the dominant forces of convergence. From the PoV of journalism, the body of knowledge isn’t adjacent but more visceral – the flesh with which the narratives of journalistic expression manifest themselves. Both perspectives are borne out in the interaction between anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and its presence in the news. Especially from the PoV of journalism, covering AGW has been something of a slow burn because the assembly of its facts can’t be catalysed even as it maintains a high propensity to be derailed, requiring journalists to maintain a constant intensity over a longer span of time than would typically be accorded to other news items.

When I call AGW a convergent body of knowledge, I mean that it is trying to achieve consensus on some hypotheses – and the moment that consensus is achieved will be the point of convergence. IIRC, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that the ongoing spate of global warming is 95% a result of human activities – a level of certainty that we’ll take to be just past the point of convergence. Now, the coverage of AGW until this point was straightforward, that there were two sides which deserved to be represented equally. When the convergence eliminated one side, it was a technical elimination, a group of fact-seekers getting together and agreeing that what they had on their hands was indeed a fact even if they weren’t 100% certain.

What this meant for journalism was that its traditional mode of creating balance was no longer valid. The principal narrative had shifted from being a conflict between AGW-adherents and AGW-deniers (“yes/no”) to becoming a conflict between some AGW-adherents and other AGW-adherents (“less/more”). And if we’re moving in the right direction, less/more is naturally the more important conflict to talk about. But post-convergence, any story that reverted to the yes/no conflict was accused of having succumbed to a sense of false balance, and calling out instances of false balance has since become a thing. Now, to the point of my piece: have we finally entered a period wherein calling out instances of false balance has become redundant, wherein awareness of the fallacies of AGW-denial has matured enough for false-balance to have become either deliberate or the result of mindlessness?

Yes. I think so – that false-balance has finally become self-evidently wrong, and to not acknowledge this is to concede that AGW-denial might still retain some vestiges of potency.

I was prompted to write this post after I received a pitch for an article to be published on The Wire, about using the conclusions of a recently published report to ascertain that AGW-denial was flawed. In other words: new data, old conclusions. And the pitch gave me the impression that the author may have been taking the threat of AGW-deniers too seriously. Had you been the editor reading this, would you have okayed the piece?