The problem (and perils) of “false equivalence”

On Thursday in class, we’re going to talk with Scott Swafford and Gareth Harding about election and “Brexit” coverage and the differences in how U.S.-trained and European journalists cover politics.We’ll wade into the very murky waters of the “false equivalence” issue that has been raised in connection to this presidential race.

Here’s how a Huffington Post contributor defined false equivalence:

False equivalence is what happens when you are led to believe that two things should be given equal weight in your considerations as you come to any given decision, while those two things are not in any way actually equivalent. For example, let us consider the matter of climate change. John Oliver, on his HBO program Last Week With John Oliver, debunked the usual cable TV false equivalence in this issue dramatically last year. While today’s media tends to have one “expert” present each “side” of an argument, Oliver pointed out that, in the case of climate change, where 99/100 scientists agree that it is real and caused by humans, this one vs. one presentation creates a clear misconception for the viewer: a false equivalence. So he did the truly “fair and balanced” thing: he had 99 scientists argue against 1 in favor of man-made climate change.

HuffPo doesn’t pull any punches in its criticism of how the news media have covered Donald Trump. But remember, this is the same news organization that added this editor’s note to every story about Trump, starting in January:

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.”

Here’s what Nick Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, had to say about the way Trump has been covered. He calls him a “crackpot.”

Dan Gillmor, writing for The Atlantic, proposes that the upcoming debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump be placed on 10-minute delay to give fact-checkers time to do their job. Then, he proposes, when a candidate utters a factually incorrect statement, the media outlet could mute the candidate and, using some sort of subtitle or super-title, let the viewer know that the candidate was talking about (fill in the blank) and had said something untrue.

It has come to this, Gillmor writes, because:

…the media people have to do something to regain some control over their integrity. Right now they’re being played for suckers by manipulators whose propaganda skills are vastly better than journalists’ apparent ability to do their jobs.

Meanwhile, others see a liberal media bias in the coverage of the campaign. Peter Navarro offers this perspective in The National Interest.

I’m pretty sure there are a great many potential voters out there who aren’t in the least bit influenced by facts or fact-checking. They’re influenced by frustration and other emotions.

As I said, this is a murky area.

But it’s well worth talking about, so be ready on Thursday.

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