Should science journalists take sides?

choose 1 red pill or blue pill

Tonight I took part in a debate at the Royal Institution of Great Britain entitled “Should science journalists takes sides?” The event was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and panellists included myself, Mark Henderson from the Times, Ceri Thomas from BBC’s Today programme and Steve Rayner, the Director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. This is a slightly extended version of what I said during my five minutes of the debate.

The title of this debate opens itself up to multiple interpretations: whose ‘side’ are we talking about? It is clear to me that science journalists should not take the side of any particular scientist, of a specific idea, or even of science itself. But it is imperative that we take the side of truth. That may seem obvious but many of the strictures of traditional journalism are incompatible with even that simple goal.

The problem comes from a desire to be objective or neutral. This is what Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, famously calls the View from Nowhere. You’re detached from the proceedings that you report on. You don’t take sides. You watch from afar. The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that and a commitment to the view from nowhere has many problems.

Problem One: a disservice to journalism. A veteran science journalist recently wrote: “Reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right”. That’s rubbish. If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively “taking a side”, then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.

Here’s a case study. A paper on acupuncture came out recently, which purported to show a mechanism through which acupuncture could relieve pain. It was a nice piece of neuroscience but the paper was hopelessly biased in its discussion of past research and in its interpretations of its results. I made this clear in my report, yet the vast majority of others failed to pick up on any of this. They just used the quotes and opinions of the lead scientist. They even used the “third-party” quote provided by the press release, stripping out the fact that it came from the wife of one of the authors, who was also the director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

People might have got away with this a decade ago, but not now. The view from nowhere simply doesn’t work, especially in a world where everyone can state their own view. If you won’t provide critical analysis or context, then others will and they’ll pick you up for your dereliction of duty. Who do you think people will be more likely to read?  In a time when journalism is apparently in decline, it would be great if journalists didn’t voluntarily decide to make ourselves obsolete.

Problem Two: laziness. When I tweeted about this debate, one of my followers replied, “Doesn’t having a debate mean that science journalists have to take sides?” My tongue-in-cheek reply was that I will circumvent this thorny problem by adding the phrase, “scientists have claimed” to the end of everything I say… scientists have claimed.

How many times have I read that phrase, or a variant like it? It seems so innocuous but those three words are of course a secret media code. They means “someone came out with this batty idea and rather than tell you whether it makes any sense or not, I’m just going to report it verbatim and used this clever linguistic trick to shift responsibility for that view onto the person who said it.” A shorter version: “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I just write this crap down.”

The problem with this attitude is that it absolves people of the responsibility to do what journalists are actually meant to do: report the truth. It means that rather than actually reading up on previous studies, delving into a topic, providing context for readers, and fact-checking the statements that you’ve been given, you can just call one person up, write what they said, call another person up, write what they said and then call it a day.

This he-said-she-said style of reporting shifts the hard job of weighing up the evidence onto the reader, who isn’t exactly wallowing in time either and who probably doesn’t have access to the paper or source material or interviewee.

Problem Three: a poor understanding of one’s audience. Many readers engage with stories on a superficial level so you need to make it clear at a superficial level as well as a detailed one. Many readers, starved of time and possibly attention, judge stories based on headlines alone. Adding a question mark to the end of a headline, or a “may” in the middle of a declarative sentence does very little to qualify a statement. Adding a quote for balance at the end is little use.

The point is that if you, for example, report a story about how some people say that the MMR vaccine is dangerous, the take-away message is that it’s dangerous. “Objectivity” is not a function of every word in your piece – it’s affected by the structure and the very decision to publish in the first place. Which brings me onto…

Problem Four: naiveté. True objectivity is a myth – it doesn’t exist. Every choice you make is laden with subjectivity. The most important choice of all – whether to report something in the first place – depends on your interests, the interests of your editor or the stance of your publication. If I decide to publish a piece of junk evolutionary psychology about gender roles, that says something about my biases. The same applies if I decide not to publish it.

On top of that, you have the biases of the scientists and how they chose to present their results, and what they decided to research in the first place. Every single word you choose to write is laden with meaning that can dramatically alter the tenor and message of a story. Every verb and adjective is an agent of bias.

Problem Five: ethical breaches. Here’s where “objectivity” jumps the shark. I once talked to a reporter who had done a straightforward report of a fairly dodgy paper and asked him why he had gone down that route, when he clearly knew enough to critique the study in more detail. He said that he couldn’t find a scientist who was willing to comment on the obvious areas of criticism.

This is the point where the quest for “objectivity” crosses the line from a noble discipline to what’s virtually a breach of ethics. Hunting for quotes to tell the story you want to tell is ludicrous. It can lead to people censoring stories they know exist because they can’t get someone else to tell it! At its worst, it leads to people twisting what their interviewees say because they’ve already made up their minds about the angle.

Problem Six: failure to understand the nature of science. Science journalism is a fundamentally different beast to, say, political reporting. Here, there is an objective truth. The MMR vaccine either causes autism or it doesn’t (it doesn’t). The world was either fashioned by a Creator or it wasn’t (it wasn’t). Much has been said about the false nature of “balance” in science reporting and I won’t retread familiar ground here.

Now before I get lambasted by straw man arguments, here are some clarifications.

This is not about censoring minority views. Great progress has been achieved through radical thinking so, no, I am not calling for journalists to tell the next Einstein or Galileo to shut up. But if you do discuss minority views, then do so with care, do so with eyes wide open, and say where the consensus currently sits. As an example I like, Bob Holmes did a nice piece for New Scientist on a frankly ludicrous theory posited by one Donald Williamson about how caterpillars are a hybrid between insects and creatures called velvet-worms. The piece has one of those famous question headlines where the answer is no, but right there from the second paragraph, it’s clear that this is not a theory that holds much water.

This is not about doing it all yourself without seeking outside opinions. The critical thing is that an outside opinion doesn’t need to be an opposing one. If you call up other scientists to comment on a study, and they all think it’s good, then that’s grand. You might find that if you ask actual experts, rather than the attention-seeking ones, you might get at what the actual debates are.

And most importantly, this is not about taking sides with specific scientists, championing specific ideas, or signing up with Team Science. That would be an equally bad breach of journalistic ethics, the equivalent of (Rosen again) “joining the team”. When writing about science funding, regardless of how strongly you feel about the value of scientific research, you still have to make an objective case for it or weigh it up compared to other financial demands. When writing about science policy, you can point out how science would influence policy decisions without getting into a strop about how other factors also play a role.

As I said earlier, this is about taking sides with truth. It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a “debate”.

It’s about doing the actual job of a journalist, by analysing, critiquing, placing into context and so on, as opposed to merely reporting.

It’s about acknowledging one’s own biases and making them plain to see for a reader.

In the end, this is about transparency and truth, concepts that are far more important than neutrality or objectivity. After all, the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’. It shouldn’t be ‘journalists’.

Update: There are some interesting responses to this post cropping up across the blogosphere. Some links:

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