Arguments

The Perils of “Both-Sides” Journalism

Has the UK media adopted the American penchant for describing both sides of an argument as equally valid, and is that partly to blame for Brexit?

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged BrexitEnglandexpertsUnited States

The shock of Brexit has led to a number of “How did it happen?” style investigations, which collectively portray a British political scene that seems to have become as chaotic as our own. That development may be partly due to the UK’s adoption of one of the worst practices of American political culture, if this bracing Guardian report is any indication:

More infuriating still was the amount of air time given to claims from the leave campaign that were either grotesque distortions or flagrant lies—the fiction that EU membership cost £350m per week; the pretence that Turkey was close to EU membership and the denial that the UK had a veto on that point…. The idea that both sides were engaged in equivalent hysteria became a theme of commentary. Stronger In’s strategy of highlighting economic risk was portrayed as a hysterical fear-mongering plot, no more anchored in reason than the leave side’s mobilisation of anti-immigration feeling.
 
…Again, the remain side was taken aback by the effectiveness of this scorched-earth approach to evidence-based argument and by the media’s complicity—deliberate in the case of many newspapers, unwitting on the part of the BBC which was bound by impartiality rules to present the claims of both sides as equally valid. 

In response, Jay Rosen aptly remarks: “I hope every both-sides-do-it journalist reads this piece.” I think that reaction can be read in at least two ways. The most obvious interpretation is that both-sides-do-it journalists are by definition incapable of accurately covering any controversy in which one of the disputants is more willing to mislead. Not every controversy fits this description, but more than a few do—and the category grows even larger when you consider disputes that, even if they could not be settled by a preponderance of evidence in “Rationalia,” nevertheless turn partly on some empirical question that is a matter of expert consensus. Yet one of the leading clichés of American—and, it seems, British—journalism is premised on the idea that the side that relies on expert knowledge is just as reliable (or just as unreliable) as one that disdains it, and that it’s not the media’s job to note such distinctions.

Yet if members of the Church of Balance can’t be swayed by the massive societal costs of raising ignorance to the status of knowledge, it might be worth appealing to their self-interest. This is the second way of reading Rosen’s remark. Imagine that, as is likely, Brexit proceeds and the UK suffers the widely-predicted consequences. It’s not inconceivable that some pro-Leave voters might feel burned by media sources who fed the misleading perception that the Remain voices were peddling baseless hysteria, no different from their rivals. There is a corrosive cynicism underlying both-sides journalism, and there’s no reason to think it won’t come back to haunt journalists. They too rely on a distinction between reliable and unreliable information.

In that sense, it’s been interesting to observe how journalists are adjusting their coverage of subjects that pose increasingly radical challenges to the standard practices of their craft. Jamelle Bouie argues that, on some issues, “the media seems ill-equipped for the job” of educating their audiences and contextualizing the most absurd or offensive statements from major political figures. On the topic of Donald Trump’s frequent sharing of material originating from anti-Semitic and white nationalist sources, he notes: “For every display of ‘pro-truth’ bias, there are a dozen examples of mindless coverage, as reporters present racist rhetoric as simple ‘controversy’ or frame anti-Semitic propaganda as a ‘he said/she said’ dispute.” As disturbing as that is, there may be signs of minor progress, on some issues at least: a recent Times article on Hillary Clinton’s energy plans referred, simply and accurately, to “the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, who denies the established science of human-caused climate change.”

It won’t be easy to import this model to every story. There’s not always “established science,” and, even with an overwhelming expert consensus on global warming, it has taken years of agitation to convince the media and public officials to describe the issue in language that reflects reality. But that is a key obligation of journalism in this moment, and mischaracterizing the relative merits and credibility of competing arguments is neither accurate nor even-handed. Soon, the contempt that it breeds for experts and elites—a contempt that falls on the undeserving and deserving alike—may eventually turn back on the writers who abetted its rise.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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