What is Fairness? 

27 October 2008 tbs.pm/1163

I’ve talked about this issue before, but as it keeps coming up, perhaps it’s time to talk about it again.

It is commonly assumed that for the media to be balanced, they must needs simply give equal time to the different opinions on a topic. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider for a moment a situation in which there is virtually no disagreement on a subject. Just one lone (reputable) voice that gainsays the opinion of the vast majority of informed people. OK, so there are different opinions here. Should they be given equal time in order for media coverage to be fair? Obviously not. To give that lone dissenter equal time would be to dramatically bias the coverage in their direction, making it appear that their view was equally likely or valid compared to that of the field’s experts at large. That doesn’t mean to say that dissenting views shouldn’t be covered, simply that dissenting views should be given prominence only to the extent that view is held by knowledgeable people who have studied the subject.

It matters not whether that lone dissenter eventually turns out to be right, incidentally: scientists, for example, often find evidence for a new theory that comes to replace an existing one which is then regarded as “wrong”. But it would still be media bias if they were given equal time.

The idea of “fairness = equal time” is actually a construct that has grown up, particularly on the political right in the United States, over the past several years. We can see it at work in the issue of anthropogenic (human-created) climate change, for example.

There is a remarkable degree of consensus among climate scientists, and has been for some time, that humans do indeed cause climate change and that it is a major problem that we have to do something about. Indeed, it is difficult to find qualified scientists who do not subscribe to this view, and the one or two you can turn up for a TV programme are generally funded by the fossil fuel industry (alternatively you can, I suppose, take the Durkin route and quote people out of context to make them appear to agree with an opposing position).

The broad spread of informed scientific opinion, therefore, suggests that giving opponents of anthropogenic climate change equal time in a news or documentary programme would be a clear case of media bias. The consensus accepts anthropogenic climate change so that is where you start from – unless you think you have startling new evidence that people haven’t encountered before. Of course, science does get it wrong – the whole history of science is a record of people providing evidence that proves that the current explanation of something is incorrect – so most scientists will qualify their comments with phrases like, “as we understand it today…” or “currently, a different explanation seems rather unlikely”.

This is not the view taken by the right wing however. Their strategy in media management has been to attempt to get equal airtime for their largely unsubstantiated views on topics like climate change and creationism (oh, sorry, we’re supposed to call it “intelligent design” now, aren’t we) and to complain that coverage is not “fair and balanced”, if you’ll pardon the expression, unless they get it.

As implied above, we see the same kind of thing going on with creationism as with climate change. You will find it difficult to encounter virtually any reputable scientists studying life on Earth who does not believe that evolution, more or less as espoused by Darwin, is the most effective explanation for the development of species. But increasingly, if you don’t give creationists “equal time”, you are accused of media bias. Yet this is getting the whole question of fairness round the wrong way.

[You may also be accused of being anti-Christian. But the evolutionist position, in my view, is not necessarily an “anti-Christian” position (although there are some who will argue that it is). There are quite a few entirely reputable scientists who think of themselves as Christians. Often they appear to take the position that God created everything – where else could that ‘thing’ that exploded in the Big Bang have come from? – including inventing the rules of the game for the physical Universe, ie “the Laws of Nature” which science spends its time trying to uncover and understand, and that is actually quite a large role: evolution is one of the sets of rules. There is no evidence for this, of course, but then there is no evidence for anything about the origin of the material for the Big Bang. So your guess is as good as anyone else’s. This has always seemed a reasonable position to me, though I must say that I am less accepting of it today than I was.]

A rather similar situation exists when it comes to parapsychology. I happen to be acquainted with two of the rather few people in the world who have a PhD in parapsychology, one being Guardian columnist Susan Blackmore. She is these days involved in consciousness studies and leaves parapsychology alone. In her view, the big problem with the field is that 100 years ago, people were asking, “Do psychic powers exist?” and the answer was “We don’t know”;… and, regrettably, the situation today is virtually precisely the same. (That doesn’t mean the same as “psychic powers do not exist”, by the way: we don’t know that.) If you were to line up a bunch of reputable scientists with a knowledge of the field, you would probably get the same answer (some might add that “it seems unlikely”), and thus presenting a TV documentary from the opposite position would be reasonable grounds for an accusation of media bias.

Again, take the business of “complementary medicine”. The generally accepted scientific view is that things like homœopathy have no effectiveness whatsoever: at the very least they should be subject to clinical trials like other medicines and if they don’t work, they should not be sold. The uncharitable will simply call it quackery. So if you are doing a documentary, that indicates how you divide up your time.

To summarise, we can suggest that views on a subject should be allocated air-time in the same approximate proportion as that view is held by reputable people who are knowledgeable in the field – which is not even slightly the same as an arbitrary doctrine of “equal time”.

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