“Current Literature” is a recurring feature highlighting recent publications of interest on the science-policy interface.
Journalists face many challenges when trying to communicate scientific issues to the public, but perhaps the greatest is the need to adhere to standards of journalistic objectivity when reporting on fields of scientific inquiry where fringe viewpoints persist in spite of a broad consensus.
Basic principles of journalistic balance prescribe that space should be given to opposing viewpoints in any story, but in the context of science reporting this raises the risk that largely discredited, fringe viewpoints will be perceived by readers to have equal credibility to the consensus viewpoint. Responsible professional behaviour on the part of journalists can potentially create the false impression that widely accepted scientific theories are actually the subject of widespread controversy among scientists.
Two recent publications have sought to investigate this phenomenon and consider potential solutions.
“Can Journalistic ‘False Balance’ Distort Public Perception of Consensus in Expert Opinion?”
Koehler (2016) attempts to address a perceived lack of empirical work to substantiate the hypothesis that journalistic efforts to provide balanced coverage can result in skewed perceptions of expert consensus. Through a series of studies, Koehler presented two groups with tables summarizing the views of a panel of experts on specific issues (with the views categorized as positive, negative, and mixed/uncertain). While the control group saw only the raw numbers in the summary table, the experimental group was also provided with the text of two expert comments, one with a “positive” view on the issue and one with a “negative.”
Following their exposure to these samplings of expert opinion, participants were asked a series of questions to assess their perception of expert consensus on the selected issue. Across all three studies, results consistently showed that the experimental group perceived a higher level of disagreement among experts after reading the “balanced” presentation of quotes, even though they still had access to the summary table demonstrating that the majority of experts actually agreed with one of the two poles of opinion.
Koehler concludes that further research is necessary to consider more nuanced contexts in which journalistic balance might potentially distort perceptions of opinion. Speculating that politically charged issues, such as climate change, might be less vulnerable to this effect due to even low-information individuals having strong prior beliefs, Koehler suggests that research should investigate these issues specifically, with an eye to whether journalistic balance might actually provide a salutary effect in reducing readers’ established biases.
“Environmental Science in the Media: Effects of Opposing Viewpoints on Risk and Uncertainty Perceptions”
Kortenkamp and Basten (2015) share Koehler’s general interest in providing empirical support for the potentially distorting effect of journalistic balance, while also turning an eye to the possibility that emphasizing which of the views presented are considered “fringe” or “discredited” in the field could reduce the effect.
Kortenkamp and Basten’s study was conducted through an online platform to capture the contemporary experience of receiving news from online sources. Across three experiments, participants were provided with news stories reporting on potential environmental risks that differed along two sets of variables: first, whether the high-risk or low-risk expert opinion was presented first and, second, whether the opposing viewpoint was absent from the story, explicitly discredited in the story, or framed in a traditional “balanced” manner. Participants then completed a questionnaire regarding their perceptions of risk, risk probabilities, scientific uncertainty, and the credibility of both the experts and the journalist.
Results showed that, across all experiments, participants were more likely to consider the journalist in question to be credible and unbiased if opposing viewpoints were included in the story, while also perceiving there to be a higher level of scientific uncertainty. Incorporating discrediting information emphasizing that a dissenting viewpoint was held only by a minority of scientists mitigated this effect, but did not eliminate it entirely: ratings for scientific uncertainty remained higher in these cases than in cases where no dissenting viewpoint was presented. These results highlight the challenge posed to journalists, whose own credibility may actually be impacted by reporting in a way intended to give readers the most accurate impression of scientific consensus.
Kortenkamp and Basten conclude by observing three strategies that may help mitigate these effects. Repeating discrediting information every time that the dissenting source is mentioned may increase the chances of the message “sticking” for readers, a method that is supported by the results of the study. Providing a simple and clear explanation for why and how the dissenting viewpoint was reached—for instance, that the dissenter is funded by the oil industry and relies on cherry picked data—may give readers a stronger basis to evaluate the claims. Finally, the authors suggest an imbalance in page space, giving fewer words to the discussion of dissenting viewpoints, as a method that could increase the validity of the conclusions readers draw.
Author: James D. Ross
Koehler, D. J. (2016). Can journalistic “false balance” distort public perception of consensus in expert opinion? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xap0000073
Kortenkamp, K. V. & Basten, B. (2015). Environmental science in the media: Effects of opposing viewpoints on risk and uncertainty perception. Science Communication, 37(3), 287-313. doi: 10.1177/1075547015574016
Anderegg, W. R., Prall, J. W., Harold, J., & Schneider, S. H. (2010). Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107, 12107–12109. http://dx .doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1003187107
Boykoff, M. T. (2013). Public enemy no. 1? Understanding media representations of outlier views on climate change. American Behavioral Scientist, 57, 796–817. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0002764213476846
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