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America’s False Imbalance Syndrome

US media often report that a particular policy is generally considered bad or unpopular, when in reality it seeks to achieve a reasonable trade-off between competing forces or goals. There have been three recent examples of this practice that highlight the problem.

CAMBRIDGE – One obstacle to productive public debate in the United States is the media’s tendency to engage in “false imbalance” when reporting on economic policies. No, I don’t mean “false balance.” False imbalance refers instead to the temptation to disparage policies that are in fact reasonable attempts to balance competing objectives. We have recently seen examples of this in US health-care reform, as well as fiscal and monetary policy.

The problem of false balance is well known. For example, media reports on climate sometimes give the impression that skeptics who question the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change warrant comparable weight to experts who say global warming is a genuine problem that needs to be addressed. The net effect is to give a false impression of where the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence lies.

False imbalance, by contrast, is not a familiar concept – but it should be. It describes reporting that suggests that a particular policy is generally considered bad or unpopular, when in reality it appropriately seeks to reconcile rival forces or goals. Typically, news coverage misleadingly lumps together critics coming from different directions, leaving audiences with the impression that most people hate the policy.