Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Thou shalt be "Fair and Balanced"

One of the reasons I am utterly unimpressed by journalists is their strict adherence to the "present-both-sides-equally"-doctrine. They have convinced themselves that to be neutral, objective or whatever a "good reporter" is supposed to do, one should always give equal time to opposing voices. Especially, when there is no serious debate among experts. In short, if science says HIV causes AIDS your duty as a journalist is to include somebody asserting this is not true. Not only that, but to give both views equal weight. The same principle holds true for Holocaust denialists, Flat earthers, the infectious-disease-promotion-movement, et cetera.

Then, an article appeared in the Chicago Tribune that dismissed the validity of claims there is such a thing as Chronic Lyme Disease (CLD) by presenting the current scientific consensus which refutes that notion, and as such evades the "mislead-your-audience-at-all-costs"-doctrine. Because of the quality of their reporting PalMD notes:
It starts with a piece in the Chicago Tribune by Patricia Callahan and Trine Tsouderos.  The award winning pair have been among the few reporters to consistently “get it right” about alternative medicine. Tsouderos is well-respected among critics of quackery for her willingness to look at the science and report the truth, without resorting to false balance*.  Callahan and Tsouderos’ investigation into the dangerous and deceptive practices of alternative autism doctors, practices that include chemical castration, won cheers from those  screaming out against this unethical mistreatment of children.  These reporters have got the bona fides amongst both journalists and scientists.
Observing the article not using this doctrine, Orac writes:
One exception to this profoundly annoying pattern (if you're a skeptic) has been the journalism of Trine Tsouderos, who with Pat Callahan, has produced over the last year or two a number of excellent, science-based stories on the anti-vaccine and its associated "autism biomed" movements, including an expose of Boyd Haley's "rebranding" of an industrial chelator as an autism treatment. She's even taken on "America's doctor," Dr. Oz. As a result, she's been demonized by cranks, up to and including having her face crudely Photoshopped into a picture of a Thanksgiving feast in which she and various others whom the merry band of anti-vaccine loons at Age of Autism view as enemies were portrayed as sitting down to a meal of dead baby.
Astonishingly, this article is than attacked by Paul Raeburn, former senior editor for science at Business Week, former science editor at the Associated Press, author of three science books, and director of a university science journalism program, for ..... not adhering to the "Fair-and-Balanced"-principle. Quoth Orac:
Boiled down to its essence, Raeburn's complaint is the opposite of what we skeptics, scientists, and supporters of science-based medicine complain about all the time about journalists, namely that Callahan and Tsouderos did not fall into the trap of false balance, did not give undue credence to pseudoscience, and did not "tell both sides" as though they had equal or roughly equal credence.
An identical observation regarding the “lack of balance” can be found in PalMD's response:
When it comes to truth, it doesn’t matter how Paul Raeburn perceives the process.  A medical fact is a medical fact, and while he may not like the way they came to their conclusion, the truth remains. 
It does not matter which "controversy" you prefer, there will always be experts, and many more non-experts, that disagree with the consensus. However, a few lone wolves do not a scientific debate make! This is what any competent journalist should convey to his/her audience. As long as those journalists are insufficiently capable of drowning out the noise the general public can't help but be misinformed. At present it has become annoyingly clear that without this massive failure of journalism we would not have an organisation like Wikileaks.

Update: Corrected grammar in last sentence.

Update II: To prove my point Javier Moreno, for El Pais, observed:
As Simon Jenkins of The Guardian wrote earlier this month, power hates to see the truth exposed. I would add that above all, power fears the truth when the truth doesn't fit its needs. I knew immediately after I received the first call from Assange that Friday in late November that EL PAÍS had a great story on its hands, and that it was our duty to publish it.
But despite our concerns, there was something that all of us involved in the process never doubted for an instant: we had a responsibility to the democracies that we live in to publish the story. Revealing the truth is the touchstone of true journalism, and the reason we get out of bed in the morning.
And, as if he had read this blog, he denounces the meme I described before:
It is the prerogative of governments, not the press, to bury secrets for as long as they can, and I will not argue with this as long as it does not cover up deceitful acts against citizens. But a newspaper's main task is to publish news, and to seek out news where it can find it. As I said in a recent online chat with EL PAÍS readers, newspapers have many obligations in a democratic society: responsibility, truthfulness, balance and a commitment to citizens. Our obligations definitely do not, however, include protecting governments and the powerful in general from embarrassing revelations.
Update III: New post on our trustworthy media here.

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