Journalists are trained to be objective in their reporting, but sometimes the pursuit of objectivity leads to giving legitimacy to unsupported or untrue fringe views. This can occur where the press seeks to provide the viewpoints of both sides of an issue. This is also known as the “on the one hand and on the other hand” fallacy. Not everything has an “on the other hand.”Sometimes there is only one legitimate viewpoint, and highlighting the fringe view gives it undue credence. This is the essence of Okrent’s Law which states: “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.”
Okrent’s Law was formulated by Daniel Okrent, best known for his work as an editor at Time and the New York Times. He also invented fantasy baseball. He also did a pretty good job of predicting the future of print journalism. Here’s what he said in a lecture in 1999:
I believe they, and all forms of print, are dead. Finished. Over. Perhaps not in my professional lifetime, but certainly in that of the youngest people in this room. Remove the question mark from the title of this talk. The Death of Print, full stop.
Important thoughts related to Okrent’s Law that go beyond journalism:
- “Being open-minded is an asset at one level, a liability at another, and eventually a catastrophe. This is true in many fields.” –Morgan Housel
- “The truth can seem biased to people who don’t believe, or don’t understand, that truth.” –Brain Lenses
- “Due to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, those people with just a little bit of knowledge are still quite ignorant and have trouble with nuance and differentiating truth vs. untruth. Yet it is the ignorant who tend to have the strongest opinions.” – John Jennings
- “The seed of misinformation tends to be wrapped in a kernel of truth.” – John Jennings
I am surprised he was at the NYT which has long bothered me by giving equal credence to unsupported views. The BBC does the same, for example with Brexit. An old-time journalists I know believes the profession is studious about being balanced. But the hazard is as you describe.
Okrent’s Law seems to presuppose that Journalists (or anyone else) can collect enough evidence to identify truth before deciding to favor it.
Agreed. Reminds of of a quote from Bari Weiss’s NYT resignation letter. “a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”
Yes. The resignation letter marked a critical inflection point, hopefully leading upwards.