Sunday, November 14, 2004

Mooney's Latest

Be sure to catch Chris Mooney's latest article, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is now available. The subject is about how a misguided understanding of journalistic “objectivity” allows fringe science to gain a foothold in mainstream press outlets. Here's an axcerpt:

Political reporting hardly presents the only challenge for journalists seeking to go beyond he said/she said accounts, or even the most difficult one. Instead, that distinction may be reserved for media coverage of contested scientific issues, many of them with major policy ramifications, such as global climate change. After all, the journalistic norm of balance has no corollary in the world of science. On the contrary, scientific theories and interpretations survive or perish depending upon whether they’re published in highly competitive journals that practice strict quality control, whether the results upon which they’re based can be replicated by other scientists, and ultimately whether they win over scientific peers. When consensus builds, it is based on repeated testing and retesting of an idea.

Journalists face a number of pressures that can prevent them from accurately depicting competing scientific claims in terms of their credibility within the scientific community as a whole. First, reporters must often deal with editors who reflexively cry out for “balance.” Meanwhile, determining how much weight to give different sides in a scientific debate requires considerable expertise on the issue at hand. Few journalists have real scientific knowledge, and even beat reporters who know a great deal about certain scientific issues may know little about other ones they’re suddenly asked to cover.

Moreover, the question of how to substitute accuracy for mere “balance” in science reporting has become ever more pointed as journalists have struggled to cover the Bush administration, which scientists have widely accused of scientific distortions. As the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of citizens and scientists, and other critics have noted, Bush administration statements and actions have often given privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion. Journalists have thus had to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House — which has had very few scientific defenders — or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who’s actually right.


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