False equivalence and false balance

Image of scales from Wellcome Trust released under Creative Commons
Image of scales from Wellcome Trust released under Creative Commons

Journalists can sometimes present an inaccurate or false version of events by making a simple common mistake. We either try too hard to ‘balance’ a story then end up distorting the facts, or we assess contributors or actors in our story as being roughly equal when in fact they are not.

This module looks at ways of avoiding two errors, applying ‘false equivalence’ and ‘false balance’.

These two errors, which are about making inaccurate comparisons, crop up frequently in journalism.

False equivalence is when you say that two or more things are the same, when in fact they are significantly different.

An example of false equivalence is to state that “politicians are all the same”. They are not. They might have similarities and some common attributes but that does not mean they are the same.

False balance is when a report suggests that two sides in a dispute have equally valid arguments, when in fact the evidence weighs heavily in favour of one side.

An example of false balance is the treatment of the climate change debate. Scientists come down heavily in favour of the proposition that human beings are causing, or at least helping to cause, global warming. A tiny minority, perhaps as low as three per cent, disagree, and it is false to represent the dispute as evenly-matched.

Ironically, many cases of false balance happen because the journalist is trying to avoid being biased.

When reporting a controversy, quite properly the journalist does not want to take sides.  But sometimes it is necessary to show that one side’s arguments and evidence are much more persuasive than the other side’s.

An example here is Donald Trump’s often-repeated claim that he won the 2020 US Presidential election. He has failed to produce any evidence to support that claim and has lost numerous court battles challenging the result. So it is false to present his claim as a viable argument.

False equivalence and false balance can both be used deliberately to mislead people. They are often used in misinformation and disinformation campaigns.

Or they can be examples of lazy thinking by the journalist.

Either way, they are inaccurate and care must be taken to avoid using them.

Things to remember in order to avoid using false equivalence and false balance:

  • When you are tempted to say that two or more things are equal, ask yourself if you can justify the statement.
  • If the comparison is likely to be controversial, explain why you think it is valid.
  • Do not accept or repeat other people’s statements of equivalency, without testing their validity.
  • When covering a dispute, make sure you reflect accurately all sides of the argument.  If some of the arguments are questionable, explain why.

It’s important to keep in mind that it is not biased to expose deficiencies in an argument, as long as you subject all sides to the same level of scrutiny.

Take a look at these other modules on Media Helping Media to help you keep your journalism up to the highest standards.

Unconscious bias and its impact on journalism

Impartiality in journalism

Accuracy in journalism