The paper draws on philosophy of science to help resolve a tension between two central journalistic ideals: That of resenting diverse viewpoints (Balanced Reporting) and that of presenting the most reliable testimony (Reliable Reporting). While both of these ideals are valuable, they may be in tension. This is particularly so when it comes to scientific testimony and science reporting. Thus, we face a hard question:
The Question of Balance
How should Balanced Reporting and Reliable Reporting be balanced in science reporting?
The present paper contributes substantive proposals in a manner that integrates philosophy of science with the recent empirical literature on science communication. Specifically, I articulate and evaluate strategies for balancing Balanced Reporting and Reliable Reporting. First, I provide a diagnosis of the conflict between them that is informed by philosophy of science. On this basis, I provide restrictions of both Balanced Reporting and Reliable Reporting. The restrictions are unified because they are inspired by similar reflections about the epistemic basis of science reporting—namely scientific justification. Moreover, I note some empirical work that supports the restrictions as well as some empirical work that indicates some limitations of them. Thus, the paper exemplifies how an empirically informed philosophy of science may bear on a question of societal concern.
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I take norms to be objective benchmarks of assessment that the agent need not have any cognitive access to, whereas guidelines are prescriptive and met only if they are, in some sense, followed by the agent (Gerken 2017, 2018a). Often the guideline will be a simplified approximation of the norm which it is feasible to follow. Here I will primarily be concerned with the underlying norms. Philosophy of science can contribute to the articulation of principled norms, whereas it is a more interdisciplinary task to articulate implementable guidelines. However, in this case, the guidelines may not need to differ much from the norms. So, I will occasionally consider the principles qua guidelines.
Importantly, the principle appears to be severely qualified elsewhere in BBC’s editorial guidelines. Consider, for example, the following under the headline ‘Due Weight’: 4.4.2: “we should seek to achieve 'due weight'. For example, minority views should not necessarily be given equal weight to the prevailing consensus” (BBC 2018a, b). Given the tension between these formulations, the conflict that the present paper addresses is very much present in actual editorial guidelines.
I will articulate the norm in terms of reliability of the basis of a hypothesis where the basis may refer to the usual bearers of reliability, such as sources or processes. However, the principle does not hinge on a reliabilist framework. For example, it could be rearticulated in evidentialist terms.
Thanks here to Carrie Figdor.
Coincidentally (in the literal sense of the term), Fox News retired their motto ‘Fair & Balanced’ in June 2017.
Thanks to Åsa Wikforss for pushing this point and to Karen Kovaka for suggesting the characterization in terms of equivocation on ‘controversial.’
I elaborate on this point in Gerken (2018a).
Of course, novel, untested hypotheses might run afoul of other news criteria. Generally, reporting clear-cutfindings may be more newsworthy. (I say ‘generally’ because reporting on new radical ideas about sexy topics figures prominently in more sensationalist science reporting).
This is not to deny that scientists are often dismissive of novel hypotheses or minority criticism. As Kuhn famously argued, in normal science, alternative perspectives about fundamental assumptions may be ignored (Kuhn 1962). But this must be counterbalanced by arguments that novel discoveries are highly prioritized in the scientific community (Strevens 2003).
Beliefs about our own phenomenological states are candidates for beliefs better justified by a non-scientific source. Insofar as philosophy is not science, some philosophical theses and theories are other candidates.
Of course, there are grand debates about the capacity of science to produce true or verisimilar hypotheses. But due to the grandness of these debates, they must be set aside here (but see Gerken 2018b, forthcoming a, b).
I have added the’and accepting’ to the characterization in order to allow for the widely held idea that the scientific community may accept a theory or hypothesis that is not believed.
A more ambitious suggestion (that I will not rely on here) is the following principle:
Science reporters should, whenever feasible, report aspects of the nature and strength of scientific justification or lack thereof for a reported scientific hypothesis.
Since Justification Reporting is not required for the ensuing argument, I will not motivate it here (but I do in Gerken forthcoming a, b, c). For those who find it agreeable, it provides a unified rationale for the restrictions of both Balanced Reporting and Reliable Reporting that I am about to propose.
That said, I have presented Epistemically Balanced Reporting to science journalists (see the acknowledgements section) who have generally responded that they found it useful as stated.
There are differences between existing versions of Weight-of-Evidence Reporting, with (Dixon and Clarke 2013; Clarke et al. 2015a) aligning more with the present approach than (Dunwoody and Kohl 2017). However, the ‘Evidentiary Balance’ condition in (Clarke et al. 2015a) includes a mix of justification reporting and consensus reporting (see also Clarke et al. 2015b). So, Clarke et al.’s empirical evidence only provides indirect evidence for Epistemically Balanced Reporting, which may be seen as forming a specific brand of Weight-of-Evidence Reporting or as a broadly congenial alternative to it.
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I presented early versions of this article at the Danish Philosophical Society Annual Meeting, Roskilde University Feb. 2018; University of Copenhagen, Mar. 2018; University of St. Andrews, May 2018; the University of Stockholm, Nov. 2018; Stanford University, Feb. 2019 and VU Amsterdam, May 2019. Thanks to the audiences for helpful feedback. I also presented the material at an editorial meeting at videnskab.dk in Oct. 2018 and would like to thank the crew of science journalists for helpful perspectives. For written comments, I am grateful to Carrie Figdor, Bjørn Hallsson and Karen Kovaka.
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Gerken, M. How to balance Balanced Reporting and Reliable Reporting. Philos Stud 177, 3117–3142 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-019-01362-5
- Public scientific testimony
- Science reporting
- Balance norm