We’ve all heard the saying, “There are two sides to every story.” And sometimes, that’s true in journalism—and life. But balance is not an element of journalism and certainly not its goal. While reporters investigate both—or many—points of view to arrive at what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call “the most complete understanding of the facts, ” giving equal time to both sides may not always be fair to the truth.
Sometimes balance in a news story is appropriate. For example, if you are reporting on the voting rights case before the Supreme Court, you would give equal time to the lawyers challenging the Voting Rights Act and those defending it. Same for a political debate between New York Governor Kathy Hochul and GOP nominee Lee Zeldin. Balance is also called for in a breaking or developing story that is missing facts or when facts are disputed.
But a knee-jerk response to include both sides in a story can lead to what is now known as bothsidesism. This misguided pursuit of balance sets up a false equivalence, a form of specious reasoning in which two sides are treated as the same when they are not. The cartoon below makes fun of this practice by pairing an aerospace scientist with a conspiracy theorist who believes the earth is flat, all in the interest of balance.
That’s an extreme and amusing example to make a point, but bothsidesism is a disturbing feature of the news media that makes it even harder for news consumers to find reliable information. One of the more egregious examples over the last two decades has been the reporting on climate change. Although there is overwhelming scientific evidence that humans are responsible for climate change, journalists regularly included climate change deniers in their reporting. The consequences of this bothsidesism are serious. Misinformation is amplified, and the public is misled into believing there is no scientific consensus on what causes climate change.
More recently, bothsidesism has crept into stories about the COVID-19 vaccine. Some journalists felt obligated to give equal time to the three deaths linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, even though hundreds of millions of people were safely vaccinated.
Part of the problem is that the public both expects and wants bothsidesism, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Three-quarters of people surveyed say journalists should always strive to give all sides equal coverage, while more than half of all journalists think the opposite.
Cable news slogans like “Fair and Balanced” also don’t help by implying bothsidesism is the end goal. According to Kovach and Rosenstiel, fairness and balance are subjective and impossible to verify. They believe pro forma balance in a story can be unfair and, even worse, distort the truth. “Bothsidesism can lead to political stenography, in which the press become the purveyor of lies or exaggeration,” they write in our textbook, The Elements of Journalism.
The idea that treating two sides equally may lead to lies or exaggeration is an example of a paradox– a statement that seems contradictory but is true. Paradoxes are notoriously challenging to grasp, but understanding why this one is true could not be more timely or important, according one of the most vocal critics of bothsidesism, NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen. He is calling on journalists to move away from horse race coverage and their obsession with neutrality. “Where the weight of the evidence makes it possible to render a judgment, but instead you go with ‘he said, she said,’ you are behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you’re doing the cautious and responsible thing,” said Rosen in his PressThinks blog.