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Handling False Equivalencies in an Interview

BY IN BLOG On 15-12-2013

Recently, a client presented a case of false equivalencies in a media situation and asked me how to deal with such an ambush.  In a false equivalency, a media outlet, usually overeager to find two sides to a story, accords equal credence and weight to a specious or discredited idea to balance it off against a generally accepted idea or even against hard truth.

Those who have gone through media training with me know that today’s definition of news is less “a report of a recent event” than it is “a report that will capture and hold an audience’s attention.”  To that end modern media are driven by five F words — all of which can be broadcast.  They are:

 Fear: If I can scare you, I’ve got your attention.

Fury: An angry, emotional argument is drama and drama holds that attention.

Fame: If a story involves someone famous, it will attract attention, even if it’s trivial.

Fun: Everyone in the media suffers the delusion they can do what Jon Stewart does.

Fascination: The public still responds to new stuff, but it better be mind-boggling or unexpected new stuff.

 False equivalencies often serve the first two F words: fear and fury.  If a reporter or producer can get a good, emotional argument going about life or death matters, he knows he will attract and keep an audience’s attention.  Add in fame — getting a celebrity, no matter how ill-qualified he or she is, to discuss the matter — and three out of five Fs are at play.

A journalist’s job used to be to write, to the best of her ability, the first draft of history, to uncover wrongs and to report rights.  Today, with the primary job being to attract and hold an audience’s attention, reliance on false equivalencies too often renders that first draft of history fact-light or even fact-free.

Which brings me to Katie Couric, who has been paid tens of millions of dollars because she is considered a journalist who captures and holds an audience’s attention. Her ABC daytime talk show is far from the ratings bonanza that the network expected when it hired her from CBS, where her anchor post at the Evening News failed to deliver the ratings bonanza that network expected when it hired her away from NBC’s Today Show. (Couric career update: Yahoo has hired Katie to deliver some sort of online ratings bonanza.)

Perhaps in an effort to gin up her ratings, Couric aired a segment on her show featuring two highly-emotional anecdotal, but medically deficient, cases of adverse side effects to the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can cause cervical cancer. In “balance,” Couric had on a single doctor.  As H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore wrote early in the last century: “Any reflective newspaperman knows that it is hard for the plain people to think about a thing, but easy for them to feel.”  The two women who saw themselves as victims played to viewers’s feelings, while the physician gave them something to think about.

This was rather remarkable behavior for Couric who, after her husband died of colon cancer during her tenure at Today, had a live colonoscopy on the show to promote the early detection procedure. She reverted to her more responsible self in this case when, after a storm of criticism, she not only apologized by writing a piece in the Huffington Post, but revealed that she had had her own daughters vaccinated against the virus. (Is it cynical to note that the apology was seen by thousands while the original segment was viewed by millions? Or that Couric, having had her daughters vaccinated, was programming counter to her personal knowledge and experience in order to create a sensation? ) You can read more about the Couric controversy here: Katie Couric

In the original broadcast, Couric’s playing to the first two F words — fear and fury — was  typical of what we see today in controversies ranging from global climate change, to oil and gas fracking, to childhood vaccinations. The media’s granting equivalency to non-equivalent spokespersons is good drama and bad journalism.  Take, for example, a distraught mother who believes her son’s autism was caused by a vaccine vs almost the entire medical establishment with its reams of scientific data that proves otherwise.  Add in another F word — fame — and have the aggrieved mother role played by ex-Playboy model Jenny McCarthy. Now the false equivalency is even stronger. (Although I find it hard to believe that anyone would accept medical opinions from someone whose claims to to fame include posing nude on the cover of Playboy at age 39. Call it a prejudice, but I prefer getting health information from whose CV includes medical school rather than Playboy Magazine.)


Before assuming her role as medical advisor to America's parents, Ms. McCarthy pursued a very different career path.

Before assuming her role as medical advisor to America’s parents, Ms. McCarthy pursued a very different career path.

So what do I tell clients who may find themselves facing false equivalencies?  There are three steps:

First, label the tactic for what it is.  “You are equating an anecdotal outcome without medical support to the XX years of scientific study available to us.”

Second, turn the emotional argument on its head: “There would be X million cases of Y if we did not have these vaccines.

Third, personalize it: “I have had my children vaccinated.  If I thought there was risk, I would not do that.”

It is vitally important that audiences understand the gimmick of false equivalency, which is why that first step is essential.  When you shine a light on a cockroach, he runs away; it’s the same thing with bad journalism: the more light focused on false equivalencies, the more likely they are to scamper away.


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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.