And a complementary view from Ars Technica »« An experiment: why do you despise feminism?

It needs to be said

David Hone has a good piece on what constitutes an appropriate subject for debate, and how the media fails.

The truth however, is near inevitably that there is only a very small minority making a disproportionate noise about their case. There is no debate over evolution, or the dinosaurian origin of birds, or that HIV leads to AIDS, or that climate is changing, or a great many others. That there are real, accredited scientists who do not think this is the case is not in doubt (sadly). But that this represents a real schism in the scientific community, that large numbers of researchers take these positions and that it occupies a significant amount of scientific research, or that there is good evidence for that position is certainly incorrect. One or two people arguing a point (and often doing so primarily in the media) does not make a debate.

This for me seems like the opposite of what good journalism should be. Surely the point is to provide a representation of the true state of affairs rather than spin (even if unintentionally) the fact that there is disagreement as something that is effectively 50:50, when it’s 99.9:00.1 or less. This can be humorous from an insider’s position when one sees the media triumph a paper as ‘reigniting the debate over x’ when in truth the researchers have looked at the paper, noted an obvious flaw or that it simply rehashes old and incorrect arguments or data, and carried on. The flipside of this is where there really is a scientific debate, in which case the debate is not reignited at all, but merely still going on, it has merely come to the attention of the press and public again which is not the same thing at all.

At least I have noticed over the years a decreasing tendency for newspapers to try to couple every discovery about evolution with a quote from some creationist somewhere, so I think the situation is slowly improving.

Comments

  1. Matt Penfold says

    I’ve noticed that when the media have their specialist scientist journalist cover a story, there is far less of the “equal and opposite” approach to balance. It is when non-specialist staff journalists cover a story that the problems occur. Probably because when you are covering stories such how healthcare is best provided, there genuinely is debate, and there generally isn’t consensus amongst the experts.

  2. says

    Fairness isn’t a matter of treating the science side and the non- (or anti-) science side similarly. You don’t get to go to court and only to have the opponents’ expert witness be countered by your favorite astrologer.

    It’s a bit different when real scientists disagree about bird origins, true, but the fact that the actual experts have looked at a good amount of data to conclude that birds evolved from dinosaurs–and that feathers on non-avian dinosaurs just confirmed what just about all of the experts already believed–should be brought up near the beginning.

    Glen Davidson

  3. says

    Back when I was a work-a-day print journalist (two stories a day, a longer Sunday piece, and an “enterprise” assignment that usually evolved into a multi-part series), I had the occasion to write about the dangers of cigarette smoking. Yes, this was back when Jesus rode dinosaurs.

    In any event, no story about the dangers of tobacco was deemed complete without the quote from someone at the Tobacco Institute. “For balance”, as it were. We weren’t allowed to “play favorites”. This even after one of our own died at age 44 from lung cancer caused by his 3-pack-a-day Marlboro habit.

    It’s really part of the training that journalists get (or got back in the dino days). Because no story is deemed complete without “balance”.

    Unless you’re an expert with deep, deep knowledge of the subject at hand, a “balanced” approach often unintentionally gets skewed in the direction of the less-tenable position. It’s not intentional. It’s just the way it works.

    But it’s also perceptual. If I wrote a 12-inch (1,000 word) story on the dangers of cigarettes and 25 of those words were a quote from someone at the Tobacco Institute, does that skew the story? Some would argue “yes”. But if the quote was left out, within 3 days there would be a letter to the editor, complaining of bias. Trust me, no reporter wants to be accused of bias in the pages of their own newspaper. Rock, meet hard place.

    I don’t think censorship or self-censorship of competing viewpoints — even those contrary to the facts — is necessarily the answer. I did what I could with weight. Giving more weight to the more-factual, rational, logical position.

    Boy, I’m glad I’m not a daily journalist anymore.

  4. says

    Addendum.

    The other thing you have to be aware of is that journalism is fundamentally about exploring controversies. If I were a reporter today and submitted a story about the dangers of tobacco, it would probably get spiked. Because there’s no controversy. No conflict. It would be boring. Nobody wants to read a boring story. So journalists avoid them — or risk becoming ex-journalists.

    There’s no scientific controversy about the age of the Earth. There is a political controversy about the teaching of the correct age of the Earth and whether a politician can be a viable Republican candidate for higher office without pandering to the religious right. That’s where journalists live. In that world.

  5. maddog1129 says

    “At least I have noticed over the years a decreasing tendency for newspapers to try to couple every discovery about evolution with a quote from some creationist somewhere, so I think the situation is slowly improving.”

    That’s damning with faint praise.

    The main thesis, that journalism about “debates” that are NOT debates is appalling, is still very true and very worrisome.

  6. says

    A few words from Bob Christopher of People to People Ministries:

    So any study of science, any real study of science, that looks at the evidence and looks at the facts and lets the evidence and the facts speaks for themselves, that person is going to be led to the Creator. And I think more and more scientists, up in the upper echelons of the scientific community are coming to that reality.

    Completely and utterly delusional! More

  7. raven says

    And I think more and more scientists, up in the upper echelons of the scientific community are coming to that reality.

    Delusional. I hope no one tells him though. They are calmer when they stay in their bubble of non-reality.

    The real result of people like Bob Christopher is that US xianity is losing 2-3 million people a year. When they find out they lied about the Flat Earth, Geocentrism, age of the earth, and evolution, they wonder what else the ministers are lying about.

  8. johnmarley says

    If I were a reporter today and submitted a story about the dangers of tobacco, it would probably get spiked. Because there’s no controversy. No conflict. It would be boring. Nobody wants to read a boring story. So journalists avoid them — or risk becoming ex-journalists.

    That’s exactly the point. Evolution, global warming, hiv/aids, vaccines do not cause autism, and most other scientific consensuses belong in the same category.

  9. grumpyoldfart says

    On several occasions over the years, I have witnessed reporters being given information that corrects the lie told in a previous story. On each occasion, the reporter has repeated the lie in the next article on the subject.

    Reporters want headlines – truth is an optional extra.

  10. Sastra says

    I think some of the worst violations of scientific “balance” in the media are news stories which cover so-called alternative medicine. Not only is there a false “controversy,” but the emphasis is often placed on the wrong side: here is this amazing breakthrough/ancient method of healing; here are the positive anecdotes; here are the Brave Maverick Doctor(s)/Shaman(s) — and, oh yes, many mainstream scientists are skeptical. Maybe a quote from an actual medical doctor following science, followed quickly with a quote from the ordinary person who knows how alt med cured them. Believe.

    It’s as if the entire area of human health is assumed to be part science, but mostly personal stories and quasi-religious magic.

  11. vaiyt says

    @4:

    It’s not about denying a voice to the opposite viewpoint, but to confront all points of view with reality. Far too often, journalists are content on reporting the opposing views in a situation but, with no yardstick to judge them by, make them sound equivalent. That’s where facts come in. You know, the thing journalists should be going after in the first place?

  12. DLC says

    Trying to “Tell both sides” when the one side is completely divorced from reality is stupid.

  13. chrislawson says

    The worst example of bad science in a respected newspaper I ever saw was in The Sunday Age, one of the better Australian newpapers and with a moderate-left editorial stance that is reasonably close to my own politics. Anyway, at the time a papermill was being built in northwest Tasmania that was being opposed for very good environmental reasons. The Sunday Age decided to open up another front and claim that the mill was causing childhood cancers in the region. They made this accusation in a large, very prominent article which committed the following misrepresentations: (1) drawing conclusions from tiny samples (seriously, it was n=5 over three years), (2) not including any control group, (3) “proving” that cancer was increasing by using cumulative incidence, which by definition can only go upwards over time, and (4) fudging the graph to make the tiny sample size look like a large sample (they left off the scale on the y axis and smoothed the curve). In the wake of this dishonesty, a professional epidemiologist wrote in to explain the errors. The editors put this information in 2 paras in their letters page midweek (i.e. many subscribers to The Sunday Age would not have seen the letter at all) and then the next week ran a second big story on the same subject by the same journalist whom they now knew had lied to their readers. They didn’t give a damn about good reporting, and that was the end of my subscription to any of the Fairfax newspapers.

  14. Mike Davey says

    David Howe made a mistake. He believes the media are journalists engaged in journalism. This used to be true, but it no longer is.

    Now they are simply entertainers clowning for ratings pretending to be journalists.

  15. hillaryrettig says

    Many years back I attended a national reproductive rights march in Washington. Tens of thousands of people marched; maybe more than a hundred thousand. Along the route we passed antichoice activist Randall Terry who was speaking to a crowd of around ten people.

    In the news, they gave both sides equal time and the way everything was presented you would think the antichoice people were a major opposing force.

    If that experience was typical, then the media bears major responsibility for *creating* the antichoice movement by basically acting like a superlative PR / marketing organ for a fringe group.