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False Balance and the Media: a Threat to the Fight against Climate Change?

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Journalism is founded on the guiding principle of impartiality. Responsible for producing and distributing information daily, news outlets are commonly lauded for being one of the most credible sources. The BBC in particular, has a long-standing – and well-respected – reputation amongst the public.

And yet, at the start of this month, BBC Director for Editorial Policy and Standards, David Jordan, made a statement which should raise serious questions about the danger of false balance.

“It’s critical to the BBC that we represent all points of view and give them due weight. If a lot of people believed in flat Earth, we’d need to address it more.”

This seems particularly shocking given the current environmental condition; the empirical undeniability of climate change surely acts as the perfect example to dismiss the need for false balance. When the evidence is indisputable, what does the presentation of mutually opposed views stand to achieve? Confusion or misinformation seem likely consequences.

Given that the BBC’s editorial guidelines also state that the broadcaster is: “committed to achieving due accuracy in all its output,” it seems the above policy is in direct contradiction to this aim. The shape of the Earth is not a matter of opinion, but a verifiable scientific fact.

Media outlets continue to play a crucial role in presenting information which will enable their readers to make informed decisions, however, engaging in false balance could serve to undermine this end. Striving for balance – when the evidence is wholly unbalanced – misleadingly gives space to potentially damaging fringe views.

IMAGE: John F.O Cook

Importantly, to reject false balance as a necessary feature of ‘good’ journalism is not to simultaneously reject impartiality. Impartiality does however require exercising a degree of judgement to distinguish between fact and fiction; the notion that there are ‘two sides to every story’ facilitates the continued spread of climate misinformation – albeit inadvertently.

The scientific consensus that human activity is directly contributing to climate change has now surpassed 99.9%, but a failure to contextualise debates over the certainty of future planetary decline will adversely affect public understanding, and alleviate pressure on governments to act.

At the risk of over-exaggerating the pitfalls of false balance, America’s far-right political conspiracy theory movement – QAnon – serves as a reminder of what’s at stake when journalism becomes a pawn in the spread of misleading information.

Questions have been mounting from scientists, and others actively involved in raising awareness of the present ecological condition, over whether media structures as they are now, are limited in their ability to effectively convey the need for action. The economy, markets, politics, sport and the weather are all guaranteed extensive air-time daily; climate change is inextricably tied to all of these topics and yet it falls short in being granted due coverage.

Last year Sky News launched “The Daily Climate Show,” a daily prime time news programme in recognition that “there has never been a more urgent need to report accurately on the climate crisis.” The show follows Sky News correspondents as they investigate the effects of global warming and offer insight into possible solutions. Featuring data-journalism, expert analysis and eye-witness reporting, the show demonstrates how the effective deployment of media resources can bring the reality of climate change into sharper focus and to new audiences.

Complemented by a weekly podcast, “Climatecast,” Sky are challenging widely held notions that consistent media coverage of climate issues achieves little more than despair for the future.

If other news outlets fail to follow suit imminently, a rethinking of the way climate narratives are discussed in the media is required. Heated debates between two polarities appear wholly unproductive in comparison to Sky’s exploration of wide-ranging themes: from policy-making and environmental racism, to fast-fashion and the role football can play in influencing public behaviour. This offers a holistic, productive approach to climate education that other media platforms would do well to take their lead from.

Challenging disinformation requires an active exposition of false information – that which is designed to deliberately mislead. This being said, providing balance does not equate to endorsing falsehoods. An effective stance might also see media outlets acknowledge the existence of dissenting views, with an explanation as to why their credibility – or lack of – should be cautiously considered.

In matters such as climate change, aiming for balance creates a harmful chasm between scientific consensus and public opinion. If the public fail to grasp the severity of the climate crisis due to the media’s lack of productive coverage, the opportunity to act will quickly pass us by.

To quote Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post columnist: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.”

About the author: Lucy is a final year History student whose active interest in the environment was sparked after completing a module on climate and capitalism as part of her degree studies. She is particularly interested in looking at the influence of language and other frames of reference – as well as the media – on public understandings of the current climate condition.

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