God, Satan and balance in science journalism

Posted: January 13th, 2010 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , | View Comments

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One of my favorite professors in college used to scoff openly about the idea of balance when reporting the news.

Dick Reavis, an indomitable Texan who logged time reporting on wars in Mexico and the siege of Waco, had a gift for weaponizing language. He brandished it deftly to drive his points home.

“Would you give God and the devil equal time?” he’d ask, pacing at front of the classroom.

I remembered that quote last week when I read about anti-vaccine advocate and Playboy playmate Jenny McCarthy’s appearance on ABC News. She was there to balance a story on a Pediatrics report on autism and special diets.

Now I didn’t watch the ABC News report and I didn’t read the paper in Pediatrics. And I am certainly not implying that McCarthy is the devil.

But the ABC News report and the discussion that followed made me think hard about the fundamental questions facing good science journalists.

How do you treat the minority viewpoint, given overwhelming scientific consensus?

It’s not an incredibly easy question to answer. Ignoring everything but the majority opinion not only marginalizes a significant group of people, it also creates a vacuum in which more misinformation and confusion can fester and thrive.

“You do need to reference that there is a minority belief held by some people, and you definitely need to address whatever scientific studies purportedly support that position,” said Dr. Tom Linden, director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Medical Journalism Program. “You have to address it, and you can’t ignore it, but you’ve got to go with the best scientific thinking that you can as a journalist by talking to scientists.”

In a phone interview Friday, Linden explained that good science journalists go through the necessary steps to vet the good science — and separate it from the bad. He points to a New York Times article by Gardiner Harris as an example.

“One of his points is that it is incumbent upon journalists to give the preponderant scientific opinion and not necessarily balance every article with the “he said, she said” convention that you find in political stories,” Linden said. “Harris believes — and I agree with him — that responsible science journalism is to give what is the most thoughtful, considered and scientifically valid theory greater weight in a story than a conflicting point of view held by a small minority of scientists.”

Linden said Harris “made no bones” about the fact that theories behind the argument that vaccines cause autism are without merit. By examining the five or six studies disproving the theory, and showing the sloppy science behind the one used by anti-vaccine advocates, Linden said Harris was able to accurately portray the scientific reality.

“If 99 percent or 98 percent of scientists are on one end of the fulcrum, this is not an equal balance. And if you pretend it is, then you’re really distorting reality,” Linden said.

Of course, playing by the science journalism rules doesn’t necessarily solve everything.

In a recent article in Wired, Amy Wallace used good science to methodically discount the arguments of vaccine dissenters. She also spoke with several such dissenters — many of them concerned, desperate parents — to relate to readers why they feel so strongly about the issue. The story received more responses than any Wired piece in history. And they’re getting sued.

Good science journalism isn’t immune to criticism, especially in an age when so many people are becoming entrenched in their beliefs.

“It seems like everywhere, people are retreating from reason and rationality, and I’m not sure why,” Linden said.

But that’s no reason to give up on good practices.

Linden points out that, aside from good journalism, there are two concrete steps science journalists can take to ensure quality: focus on specific topics and write what you know.

“You can’t write about what you don’t know,” Linden said. “That doesn’t mean you have to be a scientist, but you really have to get educated in the areas you’re writing about.”

The responsibility also extends beyond the journalist.

“For the scientists, they have to learn to speak plain English,” Linden said. “They have to get out of their scientific cocoons and learn how to communicate better.”

He said many scientists have been “derelict” in their ability to communicate. And science journals, with sloppy English, convoluted sentence structure and low literary value, are some of the worst offenders.

“In many cases, poor writing may hide poor thinking,” he said.

Despite all the pitfalls and everything that’s wrong with science journalism in an age of media cutbacks and downsizing, there is plenty of hope. The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., is expanding its science coverage (while at the same time laying off 10 in the newsroom). And locally, there are tons of people telling science stories in blogs, podcasts and videos.

Linden has even compiled an entire collection of quality science stories from The New York Times in an upcoming book.

Good science journalism shares a common strength. It connects science with people and ignites in its audience an ancient curiosity that defines our species.

Scientists celebrate that curiosity through their work, and their help, journalists can share it with everybody.

“Science in general needs to be less of an island and more connected to the mainstream of society and get more into the cultural conversation going on,” Linden said. “We are ultimately just messengers. The message is really formulated by the scientists.”

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