1812 words • 8~12 min read

World’s leading experts say there’s a problem with false balance in conservation journalism; Steve disagrees


False balance in the media occurs when a journalist  gives equal coverage, and therefore the perception of equal validity, to both sides of a story. While this sounds preferable to today’s hyper-politicized media, sometimes both sides of a story aren’t equally valid. For example, when the overwhelming consensus of the expert medical community says that vaccines do not cause autism but a famous former actress says they do,  giving both sides equal coverage can be not only frustrating, but harmful to public health. The same is true of early reporting on whether cigarettes are bad for you. Giving equal coverage of the global community of expert climate scientists and spokespeople  for the oil and gas industry who claim that climate science isn’t “settled” can also be problematic, as can coverage of other scientific topics.

Image via http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/sciencetoolkit_04

Image via http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/sciencetoolkit_04

Though it is discussed less frequently in this context,  overfishing and marine conservation issues can also feature some fairly egregious examples of false balance. Coverage of a proposal to list great hammerhead sharks under the Endangered Species Act in yesterday’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel provides a useful case study.

As we discussed in May, the National Marine Fisheries Service has responded to petitions to list both great and scalloped hammerheads under the Endangered Species Act, one of the most powerful conservation laws in the world. The IUCN Shark Specialist Group, an international team of experts, lists great hammerheads as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Several long-term independent studies around the world (Australia and South Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caribbean Sea)   have noted rapid and severe declines in the populations of hammerhead sharks. The often-cited “Collapse and Conservation of Shark Populations in the Northwest Atlantic” said that “the trend in abundance is most striking for hammerhead sharks.” In short, while scientists and policy experts can reasonably debate how much they’ve declined or whether or not ESA protection is warranted, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that populations of this species (and many other species of sharks) have drastically declined in many parts of their range.

From figure 2 in Ferretti et al. 2010, showing a 99.3% decline in "hammerhead" abundance in Australia in approximately 20 years.

From figure 2 in Ferretti et al. 2010, showing a 99.3% decline in “hammerhead” abundance in Australia over 20 years

The Sun-Sentinel article addresses this overwhelming scientific consensus (the entire basis for the proposed ESA listing) with a quote from a local activist, as well as a brief paraphrase and a quote from a shark scientist*:

“Neil Hammerschlag*, research assistant professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said great hammerheads are declining around the world, both from the fin trade and their tendency to gather in aggregations that allow many to be caught at once. ‘Great hammerheads have suffered some of the most severe reported population declines of any species of sharks,’ he wrote.”

As an ESA listing could negatively affect economically important fisheries in South Florida, it was perfectly appropriate for the Sun-Sentinel to also interview a fishermen for their perspective.  Indeed, it would have been wrong for them to avoid this perspective. However, the quote that they chose to run (and the lack of explanation following it) is a clear example of false balance:

 “‘I have run shark trips — with observers aboard,’wrote Jeff Oden, of North Carolina Watermen United [a lobbying group for fishermen], ‘and know that all shark species, including the great hammerhead, are healthy.’ “

I am a firm believer in participation in management policy from all stakeholders, particularly the fishermen who will be directly affected by any regulations resulting from an ESA listing. Additionally, fishermen know a great deal about the ocean, collaboration between fishermen and scientists is essential for research and effective policymaking, and at least one researcher that I know and respect has worked directly with this individual fisherman.

However, giving equal coverage (and therefore implying equal validity) of these two quotes is both preposterous and counterproductive to the goal of accurate public understanding of the issue. One the one “side”, you have decades of research by international teams of experts using independent and diverse methods showing rapid and severe declines in shark populations around the world. On the other, you have someone whose job it is to lobby for the fishing industry saying “sharks are still there because I still see them sometimes”.

If portraying the truth is more important than avoiding angry claims of “bias”, the journalist who wrote this piece should have pointed out that Oden’s claim that all shark populations are healthy is drastically out of step with worldwide scientific expert consensus.

It’s also worth noting that while this has nothing to do with the author of the article, the original Sun-Sentinel piece was entitled “Great hammerhead protection debated“, while the Huffington Post re-post is entitled “Florida’s hammerhead sharks suffer severe population decline.

It is not my intention to demonize the writer of this article. He was, after all, one of very, very few journalists to address the ESA proposal for great hammerheads at all, and other than not putting the fishermen’s quote into proper context, he did a good job of explaining the situation, including alternative policies. In years serving on the Sun-Sentinel’s environmental beat, he’s  covered past marine science and conservation topics very well.  My intention is to point out that false balance is a complex issue with no clear solution. It is a problem with the overall media culture including editors, not with individual journalists.

However, if we are to avoid Asimov’s “cult of ignorance….nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,’ ” the first step is to be vigilant in searching for false balance of science and conservation topics in the media, and to call it out when we see it.


Update: The journalist who wrote the original article has replied via e-mail to this post, and asked me to post his reply here.

Hi David,

Thanks for the opportunity to respond. I’ll concede one of your points immediately: I think my article would have been improved with a general paragraph on the worldwide decline of sharks. I’ve done that often enough and should have here. It would have been completely appropriate after the fisherman’s comments to quote the IUCN or some authoritative study saying that great hammerheads are endangered worldwide.  But I’m not sure you picked the right story for an an examination of false balance in the news media.

I think the false perception of “equal validity” to two points of view comes not when a reporter quotes a scientist and then someone from the affected industry, in this case a fisherman. In those cases, the reader knows that one of the people quoted is a non-scientist with a financial stake in the outcome and can assess their comments accordingly.

The false balance problem emerges when a reporter quotes a scientist representing one position and then casts about to find a scientist to quote in opposition, while ignoring the fact that the opposing scientist is an outlier, opposed by an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community (S. Fred Singer is the classic example on the global warming issue, but you could probably find examples with cigarettes, vaccinations and a few other issues.) This obviously misleads the reader. But I really don’t think that quoting a scientist and then quoting an industry advocate – whether from the oil industry or the fishing industry – gives “the perception of equal validity” to their points of view.

On global warming, to stick with that example, I think it’s essential to cover the deniers – not as a scientific phenomenon but as a political one. As you point out with the fishermen, leaving them out would leave out an essential part of the reality of the issue, whether we like it or not, so long as their comments are framed correctly and they’re not portrayed as something that they’re not.

Regarding the headline you preferred in Huffpost: I had reported in previous articles on the decline of great hammerheads and the proposal to list them. The news of the day was the reaction to the proposal, via the comments submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service. So while some may prefer the Huffpost headline because it emphasizes the species’ decline, the headline that ran on the Sun-Sentinel version was a more precise account of the content of the article.

A shortened version of this post was published  as a letter to the editor to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and the author of the original article has been alerted about the post and invited to comment.

*Regular readers and friends know that this particular shark scientist happens to be my adviser.