Saturday, November 21, 2009

Balanced Science Reporting

I recently attended a lecture by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.  As the previous series of posts demonstrate, I have an interest in how the media report science and portray scientists.  I've talked earlier about the decline of science journalism and how science blogs seem to be increasing in importance.

This lecture was disappointing.  I was hoping for some serious discussion of journalism ethics, decline in science journalism, balance in science reporting, or something equally weighty.  He gave an entertaining talk about his (and his paper's) coverage of a recent disaster, but I was looking for more in-depth information.  His audience was mostly scientists and journalism/science writers, who could have benefited from a more profound talk. 

The audience questions, however, prompted more interesting discussion.

One question of interest was about how journalists report certain science topics and give equal time to  qualified scientists and unqualified people who represent a minority opinion.  He responded that this question usually comes up in reference to climate change and that while it's true that too much emphasis is given to minority opinion (by some journalists), it was important to report both sides of a political debate.  I agree in general with him, but the problem is that there is often not a distinction made between discussion of the science and presentation of the political issues related to the science.  He side-stepped the question and seemed to be defending the way scientific topics are usually covered, i.e., giving equal weight to opposing sides (whether he actually meant this or not, I don't know).  At issue is that scientific aspects are confused with political aspects in stories, and many readers cannot distinguish between the two.  A false conflict is set up between these two aspects in some news reports, contributing to public confusion.

Of course, the reason newspapers and other news outlets emphasize disagreements is that it creates controversy (sometimes where none exists), and this increases sales.  While I can't fault businesses for trying to compete for readers, I think this can be done without compromising accurate reporting.  In fact, journalists and editors go to great lengths (at least they traditionally did so) to check the credentials of a source for stories and the validity of facts given in stories.  The major exception seems to be controversial science stories (evolution vs. intelligent design, climate change science vs. climate skeptics, etc.).  I can't recall many news articles that actually stated the fact that one side was a minority view (1% vs. 99%) or that the opposing "expert" had virtually no credentials in the topic (although they might hold a Ph.D. in biology, for example).

Another item that jumped out at me during this lecture was reference to a supposed "science expert".  The person to whom he referred has never conducted primary research in the field of study under discussion, but who has become a spokesperson on the topic.  We do need more people who can explain important science topics to the public, but it makes me cringe to hear such people speaking about important science topics and being quoted as if they were the real experts.  I know that when I am interviewed by journalists and am asked a question that is outside my immediate area of expertise, I decline to comment--or at a minimum explain that I can only comment about what I know to be the scientific consensus, based on my reading of the literature.  But I always emphasize that I am not an expert and that the question needs to be posed to someone who is.

When I see a news article about my field of research, I know whether the person being quoted is actually an expert in the topic or not.  However, the public has no easy way to determine the credibility of the people being quoted in science reporting.  Because of my awareness of this, I often wonder when I read about some advance in another field of science if the people being quoted are the real experts.  Out of curiosity, I sometimes do a citation search in Thompson's ISI Web of Science to see if the person being quoted has actually published in the peer-reviewed literature.  Sometimes they are experts and sometimes they are not.  I see the same people quoted over and over; sometimes these are not scientists but science spokespersons.  The latter tend to be people who are well-known to journalists and are always available to be interviewed.  Climate change seems to be a hot topic about which many people purport to be experts or who view themselves as qualified to speak.   

I would argue that those of us who are active researchers and who are intimately familiar with specific science topics need to make themselves available to journalists.  Unfortunately, scientists tend to avoid journalists and turn down requests for interviews and quotes.  The reasons are usually: 1) too busy, 2) worried about being misquoted, 3) afraid they'll look like media hounds to colleagues, 4) just don't think it's important.

Why is it important to talk to journalists?  As I've described above, if you don't provide information about your area of expertise, someone else will; and they may do a poor job of it.  The ultimate outcome is public skepticism about science and scientists, which will affect funding for research, environmental regulations, conservation, and other issues of importance.

1 comment:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

One of the most egregious problems with science journalism is the requirement for journalists to cast every story they write as an AMAZING NEW REVELATION THAT WILL CHANGE OUR LIVES COMPLETELY!!!111!!!ELEVENTY!111!!!!

Because stories not written this way don't get selected for publication.