My sister-in-law is a journalist. She's very protective of her profession. She is also the ultimate centrist. My father is hard-core, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Bush-can-do-no-wrong Right-Winger. He is convinced that all journalists hate America and not one family gathering has gone by in which the two of them don't get into a raging battle. She's smart and I, for one, love seeing the old man humbled.
By far the majority of the time I agree with my sister-in-law, but at Thanksgiving we set off on an interesting discussion that merits being fleshed out.
Many in the media tend to favor "balance" in reporting over accuracy in their treatment of scientific issues that are politically controversial. A number of people call this: The False Objectivity of Balance
. Essentially, in this search for "balance", journalists may seek to give equal coverage to two opposing as if it were political discourse. I find this completely out of place in discussions of science.
As Real Climate explains it:
"In the case of climate change, a clear consensus exists among mainstream researchers that human influences on climate are already detectable, and that potentially far more substantial changes are likely to take place in the future if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates. There are only a handful of "contrarian" climate scientists who continue to dispute that consensus. To give these contrarians equal time or space in public discourse on climate change out of a sense of need for journalistic "balance" is as indefensible as, say, granting the Flat Earth Society an equal say with NASA in the design of a new space satellite. It's plainly inappropriate. But it stubbornly persists nonetheless."
I really do not want to get into any sort of Post-Modern deconstruction of the inherent biases to be found within the scientific community and the structures of science itself. I think whether there is an "objective truth" to be uncovered by science is beside the point. The crux of the discussion is that when there is a story being reported about something that is a FACT (or something that at least holds the weight of being supported by the majority of the scientific community), it is irresponsible to give the other side equal time in the press.
An example might be that I make the startling new discovery that 1+1=2. It's a fact (I can imagine that some of you will want to argue with me on this point....I wont take the bait - stay focused here, please). Then, it gets reported as: "environmentalist says 1+1=2 in a new report. But others don't think that's so...."etc. etc. with a quote from someone who disagrees. That makes it seem like the conclusion may not be 100%. That is misleading the public.
That is the false objectivity of balance.
My sister-in-law disagreed:
"I see your point. But it would be irresponsible journalism to let one source have all the say. It's our job to put the information out there and let the readers make up their own minds. Perhaps not give the sources equal time, but you have to at least acknowledge that there are varying viewpoints out there if indeed there are. There is always conflict out there. It reminds me of days I would get emails from people saying my story was slanted simply because it gave the views of people who had differing opinions. Just because a story doesn't say exactly say what you think or support your views in particular, it does not make it bad story or a biased story. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we just wrote everything one source thought and ignored any other questions or doubts out there. You might as well take out an ad. Or pay us...Oh wait, that's PR firms. Hmmmm well the pay is really much better.....hmmmm....."
She went on to say that science is far from balanced and that journalism is a tool to bring to the public the voice of those pushed aside by scientific dogma.
"The truth is that the tenure-based science establishment creates entrenched dogma and both sides need to be told."
But, would you need to get a comment from a Holocaust denial group every time your mention the Holocaust? Would that be "balanced"? Do we need to hear from someone from the flat-earth society every time NASA issues a report? Would that be "balanced?"
I have no problem with presenting alternating viewpoints provided they are legitimate - but I think the question at hand is much more complicated because it deals with how the public is informed on scientific issues that have a great bearing on our future well-being as a society. I am not talking about alternating political viewpoints here. Not at all. For example, I am against the war in Iraq. However, I think that any responsible reporter would present a balanced take on the issue in a report. So, you should have balanced 'air' time for the pro and the con and that is because it is OPINION.
However, when it comes to science it is a very different story. First of all, most reporters don't understand science. Their editors understand it even less. Second, the majority of the public doesn't understand science. So, when you come to something like global warming (GW), where there is no longer any scientific debate as to if it is happening or if it is man made (only the fine details are under discussion, no legitimate scientist is debating its existence), to present both the pro and con in a story about GW is irresponsible. To me journalism is about educating the public in important matters. Am I wrong?
Dissenting opinion on science is only worth listening to if it is backed by scientific argument. I think journalists should be very careful about publishing scientific articles that are not either in accord with established consensus, or clearly backed by real scientific argument. That would be good journalism - science or not.
So, if a story comes out about GW that gives 50-50 time to pro and con the public is mislead (as it has been the last 15 years) about the severity and cause of GW. The public is mislead because equal time is given to the .03% of climate scientists, paid by industry, who dispute the facts that over 4,000 of the world's climate scientists agree on. When the issue is not debated by the people who know, it seems irresponsible to give equal 'air' time to the other side. This is not public education, this is confusion. We rely, in part, on journalists to tell us the truth.
But as we all know - they don't. Not even close.
I think it is that reason that literally everybody else in the rest of the world knows and is concerned about GW while in the USA we still debate if it is even happening.
This of course, goes beyond GW. And it comes to the whole question of responsible journalism. To me, a responsible journalist would point out mistruths. But instead, we have the false objectivity of balance. For example, in the Social Security debate earlier this year, King George was throwing out numbers on SS that were wholly untrue. BUT, in the reporting what you heard was BALANCE. That is, they would interview Sen. Reid saying Bush is lying then Bush saying the Dems are lying ad nauseum. So, the public was never educated, they were confused. But what I never heard was a reporter who went back and checked the veracity of the statements. If they did, they could have pointed out that King George was using false numbers. The public deserved to know that. But in the pursuit of "balance" the public was left confused.
This is not about doing PR for one side or the other. It is about reporting the truth. Telling "both" sides of the story can actually be a form of informational bias. It can allow a small group of skeptics to have their views greatly amplified. Sometimes, you have to give 50-50 because it is opinion.
Often times, 50-50 is irresponsible.
Crossposted at: UNBOSSED