‘Frontiers: Inside the Outsiders’ is Pi Comment’s very own column tackling social issues and trends from the perspective of students. Karolína Kašparová argues that by giving the limelight to fiery but inexpert speakers in the interests of ‘balance’, the mainstream media is only lowering the integrity of debates and failing to inform viewers on crucial issues.
‘Having a very strong opinion on something’ is not a good enough reason to give someone the attention of a public platform and the automatic status of expert. Both media and social networks have recently become obsessed with fact-checking, but this tool in itself cannot reverse the damage of the media’s frequent framing of debates on certain issues in pursuit of supposed balance. You would not invite a doctorate geographer and a flat-earther to discuss what kind of shape the Earth has, and expect it to be helpful to the audience in finding some middle ground to decide for themselves. Establishing ‘false equivalence’ – in which two completely opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not – is never a good solution, and does not inform or enlarge the minds of viewers.
I am by no means advocating debates where only a few old chums who attended the same prestigious university are to nod in mutual agreement. As both the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum showed, there is indeed a certain liberal media bubble, an echo chamber if you will, where fact-checking is often replaced by wishful thinking. This situation has understandably enraged and frustrated those who feel that crucial information is being hidden from them. You might say that sensationalistic media outlets such as Fox News or the Daily Mail take their biases much further by inciting vitriol, but that is not a proper excuse.
There is never enough space to emphasise – especially with regard to statutory media – that the way in which these outlets convey political, social, or environmental issues should not be determined by some pre-supposed worldview at the expense of facts. But this concern should not be solved simply by the constant inclusion of some random firebrand who claims to be ‘alternative’ and cooks up attention stunts on Twitter to win likes and retweets. If the mainstream media does not want to be accused of liberal (or any other) bias, it should not do so in a way that lowers its integrity to the level of Fox News.
It is, primarily, a question of expertise. The fact that someone has become popular or famous because of their opinions on certain issues does not necessarily make the person an expert in this field. Nor does someone’s status as a member of a think tank for that matter, who are all too often just powerful lobbyists for corporations masquerading behind the label of educational institutions. Take Myron Ebell, for instance, a noisy climate change denier whom BBC apparently consider to be a ‘dissenting voice’ that should not be silenced – a ridiculous stance given that he is the director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an institution receiving millions of pounds in funding from the oil company ExxonMobil.
The key questions journalists should ask themselves in selecting suitable candidates for debates and interviews: Does the person have experience in working in the field? Can they back up their opinions with proof? Do they respond to counter-arguments in a sensible and measured manner? If not, do not invite them to debate, and only interview them in the presence of a well-prepared journalist with a specialism in the given field. The need to monitor journalistic integrity is very real: the famous example of the BBC’s guidance on climate change reporting (which BBC itself tries to address) is not the only one of its kind; there have also rightfully been similar concerns about how many apparent lies went unchecked during the Brexit campaign.
Some may fear that even if one tries to find real experts with opposing views willing to discuss important issues like adults, there will still be those claiming that the media are part of a huge conspiracy who will instead give themselves away to more dubious outright fake-news projects and con-artists like Alex Jones. Well, you will never please everyone, but you can at least try to make it harder for provocateurs and sensationalists to drag down the public discourse.