Editorial: Debate not always of equal weight

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Do both sides of an argument deserve equal time and space in media? Photo/Thinkstock
Do both sides of an argument deserve equal time and space in media? Photo/Thinkstock

The debate comes up, every so often, in journalism circles, about whether both sides of an argument deserve equal time, weight and column centimetres.

This happens particularly with "scientific" arguments, notably climate change, 1080 pest control, vaccinations, genetic modification and fluoridation in our drinking supply.

The sides who are sceptical about the "mainstream" scientific side will often demand the basic journalistic model, which is to seek balance in a robust debate. They will frequently hold up, as examples where the mainstream was wrong, the astronomer and "heretic" Gallileo, or the past media and establishment support of now-discredited Dr Andrew Wakefield and his linking of the MMR vaccination to autism.

What sceptics also need to realise is that scientists are frequently debunking and disproving established norms. They do it all the time. They exist for the thrill of discovering something new.

The "appeal to authority" logical fallacy, using a qualified person to endorse your claims, is a common way of trying to get credibility.

Media are not experts in scientific matters, but there are several things we can be sure of. The answer is no, both sides do not deserve equal weight or balance.

Media also know that the scientific community is tough enough to take criticism and debate, which is why the opposing side can be covered. But we would never cover the sceptics without adding the balance of established scientific opinion to protect the public. To not do so would be irresponsible, especially when some sceptical debate is little more than loony tunes.

- Northern Advocate

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