“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?