Strength in Numbers?

“The boat dubbed the Vacumn Cleaner of the Sea is due to arrive in Australian waters next week” was the opening line from Triple J’s HACK programme where the host discussed the possible environmental impacts of a new fishing boat coming Down Under.

HACK is broadcast on the national youth radio station and as its audience is predominately students so it inevitably has a left-wing bias. Nevertheless it does a pretty good job at presenting both sides (I think) in the manner technically required by a journalist. They interviewed a representative defending the science and a representative defending the environmentalists.

Somewhere along the line someone decided communication is more effective if the audience also get a chance to have their say.

“scientists and fishing authorities say the trawler can safely and sustainibly fish in our seas. What do you think? … A group of scientists say they’re not concerned about the vessel’s 18,000 tonne quota of fish. Do you agree with them?”

Five listeners call in at the end of the episode to have their say – all opposed to the scientists. So now instead of appearing as a 1/1 split there are now five other callers having an equal say – all opposed to the scientists so it looks more like 1/7. The more people who are added, the smaller the impact of the actual data. The balance of persuassion is really tipped towards the environmentalists – even though the representative from Greenpeace offered no evidence to support his case when he was asked.

Expressing their opinions engages people but the way it is used by HACK (I think) contributes to false balance. False balance is when the media presents two sides of an issue with equal weight even though one side is not based on empirical evidence or is a marginalised minority of the scientific community. The issue is framed as a ‘debate’ because…well controversy sells. However, the ‘debate’ is not actually about the science, it is about the effect that science can have on ideology.

I think in this case including the audience participation has made the issue of false balance worse by overrepresenting one side. Mostly because the scientists don’t have a chance to respond.

What do you think? Is HACK creating a false-balance to appeal to their left-wing audience? Does it make sense that callers are asked if they ‘agree’ with scientists when only one side is based one empirical data? Does engouraging more audience feedback simply drown out the science more?

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By Dangerous

4 comments on “Strength in Numbers?

  1. Really interesting post Razza! And you asked some very thought-provoking questions at the end. The fact that the non-expert public are asked if they agree makes it seem like the scientists’ view is opinion based when, well, it’s not! It’s (hopefully) based on evidence!

    Is it fair for people to be included in a debate when they don’t have all the information to begin with?

    One thing you didn’t mention was how the dj’s framed the debate. Even if they were asking for both the scientist and the environmentalists’ opinions, the listeners would most likely have gauged which side of the fence the dh’s sat. This was probably another reason all 5 callers were against it.

    Lastly, I think the fact that we’re even calling them scientists vs environmentalist makes it sound like scientists are anti-evironment and environmentalists aren’t scientists!

    • I think you are correct in saying that they framed the issue with an ‘us vs them’ mentality. I see it as servicing their audience; university students are pretty keen to fight against anything and HACK is giving them something to do with that energy.

      Certainly I think it is important that people have a say, but it is equally important that the scientists have a chance to respond.

      The listener who called in about his first hand experience with trawling (which certainly is terrible for the environment) would have triggered a very emotional response with other listeners. However, the boat in question isn’t a trawler so it is not logical to conclude the same is true in this circumstance.

      Sure have audience participation, but keep the arguments rational.

  2. I suspect the scientists quoted by Hack are from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. Plenty of independent marine scientists, including UWA’s own Jessica Meewig, are opposed to the sudden increase in the fishing quota. As Diana said above, it’s interesting that they make scientists sound so anti-environment!

    • I did happen to stumble across an article from a UWA scientist voicing her concerns only a few days after I posted this (from memory it was on The Conversation). It wouldn’t have taken much for the journalist to find a few it seems.

      It is not really fair that they make scientists sound so anti-environment, but what is worse is by having one caller talk about the economic impacts makes it sound like the scientists are ruthless towards the local communities as well, when they undoubtedly werent even asked!

      I think the biggest problem with this type of media is that scientists (in this case) don’t get a chance to respond. It is probably a good thing it is all moving to places like blogs so everyone (like our UWA scientists) get a chance to respond to that same audience.

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