Where does the false balance policy come from in the broadcast media?

Ben Chu and Simon Wren Lewis have both opined on how the broadcast media let us down in their coverage of Patrick Minford’s memo as chair of ‘Economists for Free Trade’.  They make the point that an impression of false balance of  competing opinions was created by the juxtaposition of Minford’s ‘report’, and Minford himself, with an interlocutor from the opposing side.

This latest episode is a recurrence of a frequent problem on the topic of Brexit economics.

There are not many points to add to these incisive pieces by Ben and Simon.  But we might well ask why the false balance phenomenon happens so often.

A feature of the equal status policy is to recapitulate debates as battles of talking heads.  Let the viewers see the heads talk, the merits of the arguments should become apparent, and viewers can evaluate them for themselves.  Sometimes we get a head from each side.  At other times, the interviewer plays the role of the opposing side.

There are all kinds of problems with this;  the implicit signalling that the arguments are balanced by having one person from each side of the argument;  the apparent status of the argument as a live debate [‘look:  they are arguing?  Even the experts have not reached a settled view on this!’];  allowing the outcome to be determined by the fleet-footedness on the day of the chosen protagonists, or, if it’s the interviewer playing the part, by how well they are briefed.

But the format of talking heads slugging it out, however maddening, solves a problem.  The basic topic is boring for most viewers.  Editors have to entertain, otherwise their programs lose their followers and their raison d’etre.  And if they don’t entertain, and viewers and listeners fall away, they are not there to be educated.  The judgement is  – probably rightly – that it is much less boring to watch fisticuffs and experience the thrill of discovering who will win today, than it is to watch a lecture, even when such lectures are  punctuated by modern graphics of  arrows, scales, euro symbols, pictures of cargo ships and robots making cars.

The false equal status policy arises, perhaps, for two other reasons, which colour treatments of Brexit economics in textual outputs like the BBC website.

One, I conjecture, is a business model that means an inevitable shortage of the requisite technical knowledge to recognise an economic debate that is not a debate any more.  The BBC and similar have to sell clicks and eyeballs.  And this is not done most efficiently within a given budget by carrying teams capable of gold-plating material that trespasses on technical economics.

Another reason for the equal status may be that is that they interpret the formal and informal regulatory constraints on them to mean that if there is sufficient ‘balance’ in the political controversy concerning a topic, then, regardless of the technical merits of the political arguments, the matter has to be treated as a live debate with protagonists of apparently equal claim to the truth.

In a democracy, state media and media with state functions perhaps has to behave in that way. It’s the same calculation that would divvy up seats on Question Time in a way that was roughly proportional to seats in Parliament, or percentages scored in opinion polls.  If a sufficiently strong political group took the view that climate science was a hoax, despite overwhelming scientific opinion to the contrary, the same pressure for balance would be felt [and indeed, one could argue that the airtime given to Lord Lawson reflects this].

In which case the responsibility for the flat earth economics’ coverage lies with the political faction that does not accept the overwhelming economic consensus.  For whatever reason, whether through lack of exposure to this consensus, or because they judge other non-economic factors surrounding Brexit sufficiently important to their constituents that the economics has to be disregarded and even undermined, members of this faction treat the economics as a live debate, and expect, rightly, that live debates are treated as such in media regulated by the state.

It might well be contended that the formal and informal regulations governing the BBC and similar are sufficiently vague that an editorial policy that would have ruled against the false balance model in the case of Brexit economics was possible.  In which case, the outcome we got must be seen as a result of a balancing act by the broadcasters, choosing a point within the set of allowable policies that weighs some unknown vision for what it is they want to do against competing pressures of commerce and the power exerted by the political faction that it is not prepared to give up on pro-Hard-Brexit economics.

If things are how I see it, we are stuck with the coverage we have got, and there does not seem to me to be an easy way to fix it.  Unfounded views amongst political factions survive because constituents are not persuaded to the contrary.  This faction exerts rightful control over airtime on state regulated media and its views are heard;  this reinforces the constituency for the unfounded view, and the cycle repeats.

 

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9 Responses to Where does the false balance policy come from in the broadcast media?

  1. phayes says:

    Another reason for the equal status may be that is that they interpret the formal and informal regulatory constraints on them to mean that if there is sufficient ‘balance’ in the political controversy concerning a topic, then, regardless of the technical merits of the political arguments, the matter has to be treated as a live debate with protagonists of apparently equal claim to the truth.

    If you read their own guidelines and what other journalism professionals say, it seems unlikely that that could be a reason (rather than a rationalisation), There can be no excuse for this corruption of public discourse anyway.

  2. Minford student says:

    The problem for you (remained economists) is that Minford has so far been spot on in terms of the impact of brexit, compared to estimates from the remain (consensus) camp of 1 million jobs lost.

  3. Minford student says:

    Some balance to this biased article. … if readers what some balance … which clearly this author doesn’t like challenge to his indoctrination
    http://www.patrickminford.net/LSEpressreleaseRebuttal.pdf

  4. JCD says:

    It doesn’t help that many who provide and consume this content probably underwent a liberal arts education that often emphasized sophistication of prose over strength of argument. If you teach students primarily in contexts in which there is no right or wrong answer but only opinions, and evaluate them primarily on their ability to support their opinion, then you can hardly be surprised when they don’t build up the ability to weigh various positions and determine which is the stronger position. It’s also not surprising if this causes them to look at a complex issue with no “right” answer and wrongly assume this to mean that there are no wrong answers.

    Overall, it seems difficult to teach critical thinking primarily in contexts in which opinions can truly differ. Conditional logic and math are incredibly helpful for building critical thinking skills, even when pursuing a liberal arts education.

  5. Simon Garrett says:

    Another reason for the “false equal status” policy is that it’s easy for busy journalists who are usually not experts in the subject matter. If they are to do the story today, there’s little time for research. And of course, it’s backside-protecting: it’s easily defensible against political attack (and easy to fob off subject matter experts, as this debate shows).

    In matters economic (and economics comes into most political policy) then as JCD says, we should not be deciding policy on oratorical skills but on evidence, and hence a scientific evidence-based approach is important. However, the quality of evidence offered is often poor, with protagonists arguing at each other, often without answering the other side’s position. What’s a poor journo to do, especially if they don’t know the subject matter?

    Unless the Beeb will take time to determine where there is an expert consensus, and who are the outliers, then I see no solution.

  6. False balance, and other such ‘fake news’, are symptoms of an underlying problem, which is market failure in the information market. As with any market failure, worrying about the surface-level bad behaviour it leads to, or urging market participants to up their game, will only get you so far (and that will not be very far, because the market failure will continue to incentivise the bad behaviour). And as with any bad behaviour, the success of an policy solution is not whether it eliminates the behaviour altogether, but whether it changes the equilibrium and reduces it to an efficient (low) level.

    There’s no long-term solution to this other than regulation. The advent of easy access to the information market (through cheap web hosting), and the emergence of social media as a distribution network, changed the equilibrium for the worse by allowing sites like The Canary and Skwawkbox to build followings despite being largely trash*.

    The difficulty is of course that no-one wants to be regulated, and you can bet that traditional and social media platforms (and probably users) will cause a huge fuss over it, which will make the politics astonishingly difficult and lead to a rubbish fudge like Leveson. It’s a catch-22: you can’t get support for media regulation without the support of the media.

    *Right-wing trash news (like Order Order) was successful before social media was so established, possibly because it was more appealing to traditional media, who both like the anti-establishment sneering, and it shares in the buccaneering individualist mythology many journalists see in their profession, their news outlet, and themselves. So there was a ready-made distribution network it could use.

  7. John M. says:

    I expect that if “false balance” in the media became an issue, there would be all sorts of discussion, and the media broadcast would bring in persons on both sides of the issue, to discuss, or perhaps rant and rave, over whether there is or is not a false balance.

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