Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Objective Science Reporting

Reporters often try to give their stories "balance" by presenting both sides of the story.  My personal opinion is that remaining objective is the highest ideal for reporters to aspire to, and, in many political and other he said/she said type stories, being "balanced" is a great way to remain objective.  However, many stories don't have 2 sides, and in these cases, attempts to be "balanced" can actually undermine good fact-based reporting.  For example, I have yet to see a story where coverage of the recent earthquake in Haiti is then "balanced" by interviewing some guy who claims the earthquake didn't happen.  Giving airtime to someone so obviously purporting lies would most definitely be seen, at the least, as bad reporting.  Yet, whenever there is a story about science, it seems like there is always some quack that can be tracked down and cited as having the "other side of the story", which would be okay, except for the fact that these contrarians almost always lack any evidence or any sort of valid credentials. Science says the earth is round, let's find Quacky McQuackery who has a diploma he bought on the internet from Timbuktu U who says he's "studied" the earth by living on it for his whole life and he claims to have overwhelming evidence that the earth is flat.  Quacky also says the earth is only 6000 years old, vaccines cause autism, and global warming is false.  Now, obviously I am not the only one who feels that we shouldn't be putting Quacky up on a soap box, and yet it seems to happen far too often and good science gets unfairly maligned in the interest of "balance".  Here's an article by science journalist Chris Mooney, where he talks about just this sort of thing.

And of course, in the interest of balance, and in light of all of the recent ClimateGate media buzz, it amazes me that items like this don't garner the same amount of media attention as the hacked emails:
"In 1998, for instance, John H. Cushman, Jr., of The New York Times exposed an internal American Petroleum Institute memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to “maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences.” Perhaps most startling, the memo cited a need to “recruit and train” scientists “who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate” to participate in media outreach and counter the mainstream scientific view."  

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