Your vaccine reporting should not look like this. Photo: Getty

The problem with false balance reporting on vaccination

A measles outbreak in Canterbury has prompted a rush for vaccinations and airtime for anti-science perspectives. Jess Berentson-Shaw explains how the media can report responsibly on the issue

It is no secret, I love an effective vaccine. I love that all children can have a healthy childhood through the actions of both their own parents and others who don’t know them. It is a warm fuzzy union of science and collective action. My love affair has seen me accused on multiple occasions of being in the pocket of big pharma. Alas, no money has yet been forthcoming.

What is a secret is that people’s feelings about vaccinations are nuanced because vaccination is too often portrayed in the media as a battle between two sides: those who are “pro-science” and those who are “anti-vaxx”. And what falls in between this gap of reporting are the vast majority of people who need journalists to do better. People who need to build trust in both the science and health care professionals, in order to have good conversations and make informed decisions about vaccination.

False balance reporting is doing a disservice to society

One way that people in the media can play up this polarisation of views is through a technique known as false balance. It is a type of reporting that pits those with opposing views of the science against a scientific position, inferring both types of information are equally valid. The early (and not so early) days of climate change reporting included a lot of false balance.

The assumption underlying this type of reporting (if I am being generous to the reporters’ and editors’ motivations) is that people are smart, they can make up their own minds about the science, and it is good to present alternative views on a big issue. It is an argument based on the belief in “a marketplace of ideas”, in which all ideas should be able to compete, and the best information will win out.

Like most market-driven theories, this one is based on a pretty shallow understanding of how people and the world actually work.

Facts can’t outcompete emotion or opinion

No information is neutral because people are not driven by logic or facts. Studies have been showing for years that even scientific types use their values and beliefs to filter any information they receive, using emotion to decide whether to believe it or reject it. A foundational study by Dann Kahn at Harvard University showed that even a group of Harvard professionals responded to a scientific statement about nanotechnology mostly with emotion. They used their values to interpret the implications of the scientific statement. People in Kahn’s study formed totally opposing views about the risks and benefits of the technology based not on facts, but on what they thought was most important in life.

We are not computers. Rather, we take information and determine whether it fits with what we think matters in the world. We have an emotional reaction to information and reject or accept it as true on this basis. What this means is that scientific information won’t ‘outcompete’ opinion simply because it is factual. On the contrary, it is at a distinct disadvantage because often those advocating for science specifically try to create a “neutral” presentation. This is impossible because all language and communication frame certain ways of thinking about the world, even if we are blissfully unaware of it. So neutral information is often just information that is unclear on the story it is telling people.

Facts can’t outcompete misinformation

Not only are our brains not led by logic, but our information environment is awash with disinformation and misinformation that is constantly using narratives that are filled with values and emotion to persuade us. Many of our dominant cultural narratives – these are implicit stories that exist in society about how things work, why things happen to people – are based on a pretty thin understanding of research, science and evidence. Mainly because our brains have a preference for simple explanations, and the world can be complicated.  Facts and science, presented in neutral terms, just cannot penetrate these powerful cultural narratives when we are awash with intentionally framed misinformation, often driven by commercial or personal interests.

So when journalists and editors choose to pit the facts of vaccination against an emotive individual story about a parent’s fears, they have moved from informed reporting to helping spread misinformation about vaccination.

What should people in the media do instead?

While it is true that there are extremes in the conversation about vaccination, most people don’t actually have particularly strong views. What they have are easily triggered fears about their children’s wellbeing. What they need in order to make informed decisions is to feel listened to and develop trust in the health professionals who care about their children.

There are a multitude of structural responses required of digital media companies to halt the spread of disinformation and misinformation about vaccination. Facebook following Pinterest’s lead in slowing the sharing of false information about vaccination is a good start.

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For individual journalists and editors, by all means, tell the stories of parents who have some concerns. But show what good communication about vaccination looks like between hesitant parents and health professionals who care. I have had great conversations with parents who have said to me: “My child had a reaction to a vaccination and I would do it again because I understand this matters not just for my children but vulnerable children who can’t be vaccinated.” Wow! That is a nuanced and important story.

Understand that the science is good but that it doesn’t have the same opportunity to penetrate as fear-based storytelling. So don’t go to people who are stridently opposed to vaccination. They only represent about 3% of the population anyway, so whose interests are you presenting? This just does harm. I know most journalists, despite what the public might say at times, do care about helping people and building a stronger democracy by providing good information. It takes a nuanced approach to ensure this is actually what you are achieving with the way you report on vaccination.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is the author of A Matter of Fact. Talking truth in Post Truth World and Co-Director of The Workshop.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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