Friday, April 24, 2009

False Equivalence

I call it false equivalence and jay Rosen over at Press Think covers it in "He Said, She Said" terms regarding the "journalistic" tendency to use two sources competing views as reporting on an issue. Jay is a professor of journalism and so he covers the whys and wherefores in more depth than I will. He sees hopefulness of a decline of the practice, I see its usage as a reason for the decline of newspapers.

False equivalence is the presentation of opposing views as though they are equal and somehow doing so is representative of some truth. This practice is to me reflective of laziness and butt covering, especially in this age of search engines. There is no excuse for printing a story that contains outright falsehoods or misrepresentations as a side of an argument. If a legislator criticizes a parliamentarian tactic of their opposition after having also previously engaged in it that fact is not only pertinent to the story, it is also available. The author of a story that simply quotes such a statement makes a false presentation of that stance as a principled one rather than one of political convenience and spin. The two sides of a dispute are made falsely equivalent.

One could point to the pressure of deadlines or the pressure to be balanced in reporting, both are no more than excuses. Deadlines may exist and the presence of a story covering an event may have value, but there is a serious cost in damage to reputation involved because, now, someone will find out the facts and the story will be slammed for it. It is not balance to create false equivalence, it is virtually lying and at the least leaves the reader uninformed - until a later source coughs up those facts and again a damage to reputation occurs.

It is not only the Judith Millers of reporting that have damaged the credibility of major papers, it is also the practice of false equivalence. Both are a form of propagandizing and the reading public won't stand still for a lot of it - and there has been a lot of it. The cheerleading of the Iraq War was an egregious failure and hugely damaging but to my mind it stands as more an exception than general practice. False equivalence is a general practice and has to be infuriating to a public searching for something close to the truth. Readers walking away from a story not knowing which statement has validity or more relevance get whipsawed when more is revealed, especially if they had an inclination to agree with an inaccurate statement later revealed to be so. There is a sense of betrayal involved and that is fatal for organizations that depend on the faith of their consumers.

There is no doubt that the presence of "free" issues of papers on the internet impacts the advertising revenue for the print versions through falling sales, but this also ignores the greater reach of those papers through such editions. Much more troubling is the failing trust in those sources. Whether it is fear of being labeled tools of an ideology or laziness, false equivalence destroys the credibility of the source. I will generally find out I've been led down a primrose trail, mostly due to suspicion of political statements, but also thanks to the efforts of others with suspicions. At that point I begin to wonder why I've bothered to take seriously the efforts of a newspaper on many fronts.

I don't like anonymous sources though I recognize their necessity in some cases, but I become doubly suspicious when I've found that publication engaging in false equivalence. Why should I give credence to their source when it has been shown to me that they do not fact check on the record sources? The false equivalence given a legislator over a parliamentary tactic is small potatoes compared to doubts about stories regarding secret governmental actions unexpected and unanticipated regarding secret prisons and torture.

Even disregarding the impact on credibility, false equivalence betrays the fundamental purpose of communication, which is the exchange of information. I am not informed by being presented falsehoods or misrepresentations unchallenged, communication has broken down. At best I am confused, at worst I am misinformed and in the position of acting on a mistaken view. One can scarcely be surprised to see "Teabaggers" running around making spurious statements in the face of the reporting on the issues they react to. If Democrats propose and pass actions with statements supporting it balanced by the oppositions completely inaccurate or misleading or fact free statements treated as equivalent there is not reason for them to doubt their stance. If the oppositions' statements about the crushing of the spirit of endeavor by a 3% increase in taxes on income in excess of $250K aren't balanced with historical facts regarding tax rates under various Presidents and the economic outcomes there is no reason for them to doubt their emotional attachment to the stance and the Party. While some people would still engage in complete stupidity on the basis of emotional attachments many would not. Reasoned behavior is thwarted by the actions of those who should be trusted have enhanced it.

To be sure there are and always will be sources consulted for agreement rather than information and those aren't really an issue in this discussion. It is too bad that such slants aren't confined to the editorial pages or opinion segments rather than the news, but it is something to be lived with. False equivalence isn't something to be lived with, it is something to mock and push back against in the interest of reasoned decision making.

1 comment:

Chuck Butcher said...

I may have been less enthusiastic in my link than I meant to be, go read the Press Think entry, it's worth your time.