The Fallacy of False Equivalency

Gather ’round children, and I’ll tell you a tale.

Once upon a time, journalists got it into their heads that every story had (at least) two sides. And that was good. A reporter would interview one person, he would say something about someone else, and then the reporter would go ask that person or someone who knew them about it. For really complicated stories, this often involved asking many, many people about their perspective and their grasp of the facts at hand. Barring video evidence, this was the best way to get an idea of the scene, event, story, or whatever.

This took time, lots of time. Reporters, especially good investigative reporters, would work a story for days, weeks, even months. The same story. Just one.

For many years this went on, until a series (or confluence, really) of events took place that changed the paradigm for reporters everywhere.

1. Newsrooms got smaller

2. Right wing activists got organized

3. The Internet got invented (you know, by Al Gore, or Rush Limbaugh, or some government and defense scientists)

When these three things happened, Journalists found themselves with a lot less time, a lot more competition and a lot more vocal partisan chatter.

And thus was born the fallacy of false equivalency.

Reporters, struggling against deadlines and decimated newsroom staffs, still strove to tell both sides of a story. But instead of a well-researched, well-reporting accounting of the facts, journalists were forced to get action-reaction stories and crank them out at high volume. An industry developed around providing those reactions and suddenly a “consultant” or “analyst” was just a phone call or email away.

When reporters tried to analyze information and provide an account of the facts instead of this action-reaction (he said-she said) story, the organized right wing (and to a much, much lesser extent a few on the left) charged the media with “bias,” it being well-known at this point that all journalists are commie pinkos who seek socialized everything (or something), and the reporters were forced back into the “Republicans say this and Democrats say that” format.

It became common practice to treat each side like their position and information was equally valid. And not just in politics, but in science, medicine, education, and other seemingly fact-based disciplines.

Jay Rosen of NYU has taken an active role pointing out these false equivalencies, as has the Atlantic.

Treating Republicans and Democrats as equal players in the “truth” game may not seem like a big deal. In fact it may seem like the right thing to do. So what’s the big problem.

The big problem is this: Journalists treating climate change deniers like they are equal in number and quality of proof to the hundreds of thousands of scientists in the mainstream makes news viewing and reading citizens think there is actually a debate going on. Treating everything a politician says as fact, even when it’s fiction, does a disservice to democracy and the intelligence of the public. And it’s not really journalism at all.