Media & TechnologyScience

Guest Post: No, False Balance Is Not Responsible Journalism

Ed’s Note: Today’s guest post author wished to remain anonymous. This post is about the idea that every viewpoint has an equally valid opposite, based on the erroneous notion any contrasting view is equally credible, no matter how unsupported that opinion is. 

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One of the local TV stations here in Maine airs “Town Hall” debates on various topics. This week, they’ve chosen to wade into the nontroversy of vaccines. I sent them an e-mail to express my displeasure, which I’m sharing here, in the hopes that it will encourage other parents, and non-parents, to speak up about poor vaccine coverage, in their areas and beyond.

Hello,
I am a Maine resident and the mother of a healthy 5-year-old. I care about my son and others like him, as well as those who aren’t so fortunate. That’s why, when I saw that WGME 13 would be hosting a “debate” on vaccine issues, I was, quite frankly, horrified.

 

I’m a person who truly values multiple perspectives on numerous topics, but sometimes there is only one perspective, and entertaining anything else is irresponsible. That’s the case with vaccines.

 

I don’t understand exactly how it is that vaccines have come to be a matter of debate. This isn’t religion or philosophy. It’s not about interpretation. There is a landslide of evidence that shows the individual and societal benefits and safety of vaccines, and then there is dangerous insanity… like Ginger Taylor. Where do you draw the line? Is the moon made out of cheese? I’m sure I could find someone who thinks it is. Is Maine actually in Africa? Well, my uncle’s friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s mother looked at a map from the wrong angle and is convinced it is. Why don’t you talk to her?

 

Is this insistence on playing both sides about ethics or about ratings? If it’s about ethics (because, you know, it’s not fair to leave one side unrepresented), what about the ethics of encouraging vaccine denialism? Of endangering vulnerable children and adults in our society by promoting baseless pseudoscience? That doesn’t sound ethical to me. If it’s about ratings, just be honest.

 

The thing here is that, as you must be aware, even if you have the same number of people representing both positions, they don’t get equal screen time or attention. The science-based doctors have to remain professional, so they can’t respond in kind to the mindless babble spouted by the other “side”. They don’t get to play the crazed mommy, which, as evidenced by countless Lifetime original movies, is very appealing to viewers. And you know this. You must. This happens every single time someone debates the topic, and that’s a lot. See, it isn’t innovative to talk about both pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine views in this context. What’s innovative is to address myths in a way that respects the truth and those with concerns. A debate just validates concerns that are truly not justified by science, public health, or basic human decency.

 

I really don’t mean to be rude here, but I’m just so confused by media outlets’ desire to cling to obsolete approaches to issues that are very much settled.

 

Anyone can have an opinion. That doesn’t mean it deserves the same treatment as the truth. It’s hard to respect journalism from people who aren’t interested in the truth.

 

I’m extremely disappointed in WGME for falling into this trap. I hope you’ll all come to your senses, because I know you’re not bad people, but you’re playing games with a serious subject, and I don’t know how to make you, and the countless other media outlets, understand. Don’t be fooled. Be responsible.

For more on this topic, see the Voices for Vaccines False Balance Toolkit.

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Mary

Mary

Mary Brock is a scientist who works on drugs you've hopefully never heard of. She enjoys cooking to Blue Grass music, messing with her cats, and hosting the Boston Skeptics' Book Club. She was born in the South but loves living in New England (despite the lack of chocolate chip pizza). Mary does not use Twitter and don't even try to follow her, because she is always looking over her shoulder.

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