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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.

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. This seems to signal an awareness that after a while, journalists catch on to the connections between contrarian scientists and industry. But in the meantime, a window of opportunity apparently exists when reporters can be duped by fresh faces.


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Nov. 13th, 2004 03:13 pm (UTC)
What really frustrates me about the media in this country is that even when presented with massive and solid science pointing to a fact, the govenment gets their shots in by calling something bunk and the people tend to believe them over, say, the League of Concerned Scientists. this makes no sense! I think that when writing an article about science, only scientists should be quoted. Pro or con, at least their scientists

A prime example is Bush's policy on "zero net loss conservation." The gist is that Bush advocates allowing habitat destruction so long as for every acre destroyed another acre of similar biodiversity is created to take its place. Any biologist or ecologist worth his salt will tell you that biospheres are unique and that the indiginous balance there can not be recreated. Wipe out a part of the Tongas that's been pristine for thousands of years, displace native species that will never come back, and then plant some acorns and pine cones for zero net loss? Bullshit.

But Bush's procamation gets touted left and right while scientists decrying this devestation get a line or two in passing.

It's tripe.
( 1 informant — We want information! )



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