It is conventional to give people the benefit of the doubt—to err, when possible, on the side of uncertainty and not to presume the unlikely is untrue. But it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain circumstances, and it is quite another to give an outsized benefit with very little doubt indeed. That, in essence, is origin of false balance.
Worse, of late the media has taken to determining what subjects are in doubt not by what evidence is available, but instead by how forcefully people argue for one side or another. A forceful but untrue statement often triggers a confused and muddled response from journalists, who, by dint of their profession, know both that the statement is painfully untrue and that to contradict it outright is painfully taboo.
Journalistic conventions, intended to ensure fair treatment regardless of personal inclination, fail abysmally when public figures refuse to play by the rules.
Which brings me to a phrase I have seen all too often lately: “claimed, without evidence.” As in, “…claimed, without evidence, that Hillary Clinton started the ‘birther’ rumor.” Or, “…claimed, without evidence, that he had won the popular vote.” Or even, “…claimed without evidence that Muslims cheered in the streets of New Jersey while the Twin Towers fell.”
In journalistic parlance, this has come to be a condemnation; it is a way to say, in slightly arch tones, that the claim in question is likely false. I think such circuitousness is a deeply poor way to approach untrue claims, because to say they are “without evidence” is to say merely that these claims have no support. The trouble with all these statements is that they are not, in fact, claimed without evidence. For each, there is actually a great wealth of evidence, but that evidence is negative. All the evidence we have about these claims says they are lies, and that evidence is substantive, comprehensive, and multi-spectrum.
So it isn’t technically true to say “without evidence.” In fact, it should be something like “…claimed, directly contradicted by all available evidence, that…” Or perhaps, “…claimed, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that…”
Maybe even “…claimed, wrongly, that…”
But when the sensibilities of a media resist a position, they do not allow such bold statements very often. Even when they are warranted, we shy away from them. It’s almost as though the media mistrusts obvious wrongness. As though journalism, a whole profession bent on figuring out the truth, presumes that the truth is obvious in such cases.
There are a lot of people right now trying to place the blame for America’s historic histrionic flood of misinformation at the feet of fake news, Facebook, social media, liberal bubbles, or “alt-right” (white nationalist) propaganda. But I don’t think that’s fair—people believe stupid things and ignore evidence all the time. The question isn’t whether they are exposed to bad ideas, the question is whether anyone models how to assess those ideas skeptically.
Which, for me, is what journalism should do. Not just report isolated snippets of information, but put those pieces in the broader context. Our media institutions should be there to help us understand how facts fit together, which claims have evidence, what that evidence is, and how to assess new claims in the context of existing evidence.
Instead, we get a media that shrugs in the face of the bizarre. “We report, you decide. We won’t teach you how to decide, or tell you the context you need to decide wisely, or model what it looks like to weigh unequal claims and bodies of evidence. We’ll just throw things out there and you do what you want with them.”
To me, the phrase “without evidence,” used in this context of late, is a concession to the idea that truth is negotiable and opinion is the only valid measure. If we say “without evidence” about a claim that is deeply and comprehensively contradicted by evidence, what we are actually doing is saying that a body of evidence is not useful. We’re ceding the truth to the people who express nonsense with certainty. We’re saying that even things that are known falsehoods deserve equal chance to be considered.
And that, to me, is how we misinform a country. By ceding the ground formerly home to an empirical center and sober consideration, and giving it over to wild claims and conspiracist thinking.
It’s not the fake news destroying what little common truth remains in our society. It’s the real news, abdicating the role of the 4th estate.
Image Credit: Binuri Ranasinghe