What do media coverage of climate change and COVID-19 have in common? Each is an example of the media practice of “bothsidesism,” in which journalists strive to present both sides of an issue, even when most credible sources support one side.
According to a new Northwestern University study, bothsidesism, also known as false balance reporting, can harm the public’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction and lead audiences to doubt the scientific consensus on pressing societal issues such as climate change.
“This week’s devastating heat wave in Europe is a reminder that we need to take urgent action to slow human-caused warming,” said David Rapp, a psychologist, and professor at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) who coauthored the study.
The argument that climate change is not artificial has been repeatedly disproven by science, yet many Americans believe that the global crisis is either not real, is not our fault, or both, according to the researchers, in part because the news media has given climate change deniers a platform in the name of balanced reporting.
The researchers discovered in the study that false-balance reporting can cause people to doubt the scientific consensus on climate change, making them wonder if the issue is even worth taking seriously.
Rapp cited debates over the efficacy of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as another relevant example. Although most doctors agree that it is beneficial, elevating the voices of a few people who disagree can create unnecessary confusion.
“Because the scientific consensus is nearly unanimous, climate change is an excellent case study of the false balance problem.” “If 99 doctors said you needed surgery to save your life and one disagreed, you’d probably listen to the 99,” Rapp said. “However, we frequently see one climate scientist pitted against one climate denier or downer as if it were a 50-50 split.”
The researchers conducted three experiments to see how people would react when two opposing views on climate change were presented as equally valid perspectives, even though one was based on scientific agreement and the other was not.
“When both sides of an argument are presented, people have lower estimates of scientific consensus and appear to be less likely to believe climate change is a cause for concern,” Rapp said.
Presenting seemingly equal sides, he says, can lead to one of three problematic outcomes: doubt about whether there is consensus; confusion about what is true; and a preference for the more placating option, i.e., “Someone’s arguing that climate change isn’t something to worry about, so I won’t worry.”
The study validates concerns raised by some journalists and newsroom leaders for years. Rapp has also studied memory, and his findings explain why we may be susceptible to misinformation in the media, even if it is presented as opinion rather than fact.
“People believe that anything they can easily recall is probably true.” If it’s false or misleading information that the media parroted or gave a platform to, the person will still believe it if it comes up again later because they’ve heard it before,” Rapp explained.
Rapp and study coauthor Megan Imundo, ’18, a former Northwestern undergraduate who is now a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered one promising strategy that newsroom leaders could use to help readers even when “both sides” are presented: The study participants gave less weight to climate change deniers after emphasizing the broader consensus of experts on the subject.
“If you can remind people of the consensus view, they will take it up and use it,” Rapp explained.