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America’s False Imbalance Syndrome

Summary:
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.

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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.

A prime example of false imbalance arose in reporting on the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”). In the years after the ACA was passed, many journalists, citing opinion polls, reported that a majority of Americans opposed it. But their reports tended to combine respondents who thought Obamacare went too far and gave government too big a role in people’s lives with respondents who believed the ACA should have extended health insurance coverage further than it did.

For example, the media reported that 62% of respondents in a 2013 CNN poll opposed the ACA. But that included 15% of Americans – 24% of the 62% classified as opposed – who thought the law did not go far enough.

After Donald Trump was elected president, the percentage of Americans who wanted to extend the ACA rose sharply, and the share favoring its repeal declined. In a November 2017

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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