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Husted '13: Avoiding the 'balance trap'

As I was reading The Herald during the time of gun control controversy, a seemingly innocuous letter caught my eye. Evan Stern ’16 wrote in to express his approval of Andrew Powers’ ’15 column (“Common-sense gun control,” Feb. 4). Stern said he found The Herald’s coverage of gun control to be rather “one-sided” and concluded by stating, “It is important that all voices be heard — this is the essence of democracy” (“Letter: Gun control discussion must consider all sides,” Feb. 5).

Stern’s comments certainly apply to individuals and even institutions as they engage in public discourse in the United States. Should any true democracy protect free speech? Of course. Should we expect our media outlets to give equal coverage to all of these different points of view under the pretense of fairness? Absolutely not.

But many would argue that we should. For every liberal point of view on an issue, there is, after all, a conservative one. We deride Fox News for being too conservative — though it claims to be “fair and balanced” — and we criticize MSNBC for being too liberal — though I am not sure it makes similar false claims. But people generally expect trusted news from agencies like the New York Times or CNN to present both sides of any argument. In fact, balance seems to be part of the reason they are trusted.

While on the surface this seems an admirable goal, is it always fair to represent both sides of everything that gets reported? Most things in news are actually reported without balance at all, like the weather, official news bulletins or sports scores — namely facts or “best predictions.” The trickier question when it comes to articles that must report beliefs becomes: Where do we draw the line between good and bad beliefs? This is where balance can go from being an effective tool to a “trap” that distorts the truth.

One oft-cited example of this “balance trap” comes from climate change reporting. When the issue first came into the media spotlight, it was reported as if a fact. Climate change skeptics responded by putting together a group of “experts” to challenge this idea. Journalists then felt obligated to deliver “both sides” of the issue. According to an overwhelming majority of scientific evidence, climate change is, in fact, real. It is only through manipulation of the media that this fact turned into a belief. Today, the U.S. is one of the few places you can turn on a television and see a debate about whether climate change is even real.

A much less tired example of the “trap” comes from articles about marijuana regulation. A typical article may taut all the potential benefits of ending the “war on weed” but end with a warning from detractors about health and safety concerns — this lets both sides get in a punch. As a journalist, how do you deal with views about marijuana that are based on myth or misconception, especially when health groups or government agencies propagate them?

For example, USA Today came out with an article in December in which the National Institute on Drug Abuse said that marijuana use was associated with respiratory problems and long-term cognitive impairment. The first of these myths has been called into question by studies that show regular users actually experienced increased lung functionality. The second was disproved entirely by a study in the journal Addiction. Both of these studies would have been widely publicized — a mere Google search away — for the eager writers to cross-verify their sources.

The article went on to quote a member of NIDA stating, “There are many people who go into treatment to get over an addiction to marijuana” in support of the idea that marijuana addiction is pervasive. In reality, many people in centers for marijuana “addiction” were coerced into going instead of facing jail time. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, more than one-third of people admitted to these programs hadn’t even smoked in the thirty days prior to treatment.

So before reporters simply include any statements in their articles, it is imperative that they ask: Who delivers them? Do institutions at risk have something to gain by making them? The NIDA certainly does when it comes to marijuana policies. As such, it would be good to point out conflicts of interest in articles or simply avoid including them, even if they come from an “expert.”

Assisting in the dissemination of beliefs that are untrue is a grave crime in the journalistic profession. I do not think that all journalists fall prey to this trap on purpose. Sometimes it just becomes easy to treat sources with official badges as “reliable.” But a healthy dose of skepticism — and perhaps some training reading journal articles — would certainly help to cleanse the dirty news palate of this country.

There are plenty of issues that need to be debated. And as far as a democracy goes, all voices should be given a forum to be heard. But it is the media’s duty to weigh these voices carefully, to avoid taking the loudest one by virtue of its volume and to make sure the ones that we can hear are — at the least — true.



Lucas Husted ’13, thinks that facts shouldn’t be debated in the opinions section. He can be reached at



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