debate people sitting on stage in circle

The flaws of fairness in media debates

One of the most important pillars of the media in a free country is objectivity. Journalists are urged to report in a nonpartisan, balanced and unbiased manner. This has led to the practice wherein journalists often invite a representative from every side of a debate to establish a balanced and fair representation of a given issue. However, what if these – seemingly righteous – values actually lead to more damage than good? 

An American study (reported on here) warns of the risks of ““bothsidesism,” whereby journalists strive to present both sides of an issue, even in cases where most credible sources fall on one side. This bothsidesism (or false balance reporting) can damage the public’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction and lead audiences to doubt the scientific consensus on pressing societal challenges like climate change or COVID vaccination.”

While 99% of scientists could hold a clear consensus over something like climate change, presenting two scientists opposing each other at a television debate show implies a 50-50 split on the issue. According to the researchers, this leads to three concerning results among viewers: “doubt about whether there is consensus; confusion about what’s true; and a tendency to prefer the more comforting option (there is no problem so I don’t have to worry).

This results in a very difficult dilemma among people that are tasked with facilitating the public debate (media, but also brands to a certain degree). Luckily the researchers found one strategy to negate the negative effects: Emphasizing the broader consensus of experts on climate change reduced the weight the study participants gave to climate change deniers. So if possible, always explain the disbalance in credibility or consensus between opposing parties if there is one.

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