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Covering the Science Beat for an Increasingly Anti-Science Audience

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 15th, 2010 · On Second Thought
In today’s cultural, intellectual and financial world, I can't imagine a media job with less potential than science reporter. When your sources become objects of public scorn and ridicule, what’s to write?

Scientists spend as much time lamenting their inability to communicate with the public as they do explaining the origins of life, evolution, global warming, responses to prostate cancer, childhood immunizations don’t cause autism and the like.

It’s a problem as old as the Enlightenment’s challenges to what seemed for millennia as divine certainties. In a nation accustomed to seeking simple answers to complex questions and a culture increasingly driven by belief rather than evidence, scientists today often are trying to communicate with the willfully deaf.

So often burned by their own missteps and opaque jargon, many scientists (and medical researchers) find comfort in shunning the news media who brought them public scorn and colleagues’ ridicule.

I’m grateful to The Enquirer for this recent example of why some scientists fail to make their case with the public and probably, on reconsideration, will blame the news media for their troubles. Consider how easy this makes it for flat-earthers to brush aside science and scientists. An Associated Press story headlined, “Top home-school textbooks dismiss Darwin, evolution,” quotes this critic of Creationism: “'I feel fairly strongly about this. These books are promulgating lies to kids,' said Jerry Coyne, an ecology and evolution professor at the University of Chicago.”

You can’t make this stuff up. “Fairly strongly”? About “promulgating lies to kids?" What does he feel really, I mean, like totally awesomely strongly about? Tenure?

Part of the problem is that science/medicine is a process. This can be tough to report. News requires events. Is it new hope or no hope? Is coffee/chocolate/red win good or bad for me? Glacial melt imperils everyone. Another study announced tomorrow, contradicting today’s. It’s an event. (Actually, it’s the process, promoted by marketing as an event...)

I asked two former Enquirer colleagues about the perils of medical/science reporting and whether it's our job to explain science to our readers, viewers and listeners. Sue MacDonald, a longtime medical writer, responded: “Yes, I think it is the media's duty to report and educate the audience about basic science. How does cancer work? How does pain develop? What is nuclear medicine? Why is aspirin so well-accepted and so little studied?

“If Rush Limbaugh knew that one of the hallmarks of global warming is increasing erratic weather patterns and more and more intense storms, he'd get it that Washington D.C. getting three feet of snow is an abnormality, not a sign of 'coldness.'

“For me the connection (between drug studies and manufacturers) started to get clearer when I was covering all the new anti-cholesterol drugs that were coming out in the ‘80s, each one promoted by a certain pharmaceutical company, which also usually funded the studies and paid guys like Ken Griffey Sr. and a bunch of doctors to fly around the country saying good things about it. Or when I was writing about hepatitis vaccines and found that the Hepatitis Information Center or the Healthy Liver Foundation was funded solely by the pharmaceutical company that made the vaccine.

“The problem is that even if you start covering all the various facets of medicine and science, no one will believe you, because those very professions themselves are built on credentials, publish/perish and letters behind your name.”

Sue added that this extends to consideration of alternative treatments, especially those developed by individuals outside the world of medical credentials. It’s a closed shop until patients assert themselves at the risk of alienating physicians on whom they depend, she said.

“And the fact that as reporters we're bound/taught to get both sides or (ideally 3-4-5 sides) of the story, anyone's idea can be shot down by anyone else, with or without an agenda. So doctors can pooh-pooh all they want every time someone comes up with a better idea, but we're not allowed to do the same to them and their toxic drugs/radiation machines/heat wraps/bone drugs/calcifying supplements, whatever, because we're only lay people who don't know any better and don't understand their world.

“The best thing I figured out to do was simple: lay out the facts, find out as much information as possible and let readers decide for themselves. Tell them the 'accepted scientific/medical' fact. Then give opposing facts or, better yet, alternative approaches to the same thing. Talk about the economics of such decisions: who stands to gain, who stands to lose. And then let people make up their own minds. Who's funding it, how much they're funding it, etc.

“It's hard, and in these days of belt-tightening and white-guys-on-TV-yelling-a-lot, all of that reporting is being replaced by pomp and show and hot air.”

Tim Bonfield wrote about medicine, science and misdeeds of local researchers.

Here is some of what he says: “I fall back upon my old 'perfect is the enemy of good’ mantra. If a reporter spends all his or her time poking holes in the quality, integrity or hidden agendas of a source, pretty soon there will be no sources left worth trusting at all and no stories that could be written without an overwhelming sense of passing along a deception.

“Self-imposed paralysis is useless. Besides, I think the public already understands that nearly all news sources come with biases, be they open or hidden. Readers understand that the oil companies will defend the oil companies and that the corporation bashers will twist facts to save the little people, etc.

“All of this exists in medical/science reporting. Navigating the minefield requires knowing when there's a serious debate about a hot topic versus when the consensus is strong or the field is new and the simple point of the news story is to present a fresh finding.

“If a topic comes with heavy ongoing debate -- such as climate change, or abortion, or nutrition -- then it becomes incumbent upon the media org to acknowledge that massive debate exists. That virtually everything about the topic is under disagreement, that every fact is in dispute. Then you can provide at least some value by saying ‘Here's the latest wrinkle...'

“Yes, agendas should be revealed when they are known -- such as drug-company sponsorship of a study. But it is vital to understand that even though there's an agenda involved, the information coming from such a source can be extremely accurate. Far, far too many reporters simply stop talking to organizations they feel are too biased. That can be a real disservice to readers.

"For example, folks from the NRA may fight tooth and nail to limit gun control laws, but they can be very useful at making sure that weapon descriptions are accurate. How many reporters have you chided over the years about bad descriptions of weapons in cop stories and so forth, Ben? So in medicine, some sources really are the authorities on the topic -- even if they have biases.

“Ultimately, readers prefer news stories that advance their understanding of a topic. So tit-for-tat/expert vs. expert/battle-to-a-standstill stories (done in the name of balance and fairness) provide little value to readers. Worse, they waste a lot of precious reporting time. The best thing in those situations may well be not to publish anything.

“To me, most coverage of the weather vs. climate change debate fits this tit-for-tat category. Adding to the problem: nobody will be alive to see who was right, because climate change occurs over thousands of years. So what's the point?

“Bottom line: when it becomes obvious that politics has overwhelmed a seemingly scientific debate, the message to reporters should be ‘Tread with care.’ You should know you are stepping into a minefield, and act accordingly. All the reporter's bullshit detecting radar should be turned up to maximum capacity; every editor involved should be donning X-ray vision glasses to hunt for red flag words.

“Then, having done your best to be fair and accurate, proceed without apology or regret. And if both sides call you up after the story runs, complaining that the other side got too much ink, you will know that you did your job well.”


Curmudgeon notes

• Channel 19’s recent late news reinforces the sense that Fox News is a GOP echo chamber. When 19 shows the president stumping for health care, it’s voice-over; we see but don’t hear Obama. When it’s the GOP rebuttal, it’s a Republican speaking to the camera. Sometimes, it’s not even a response: a Mitch McConnell set speech from the Senate floor. Even by the corrosive standards of Fox News, that’s not fair and balanced.

• It’s too much to ask that local TV news has current video to go with their stories, but did WKRC (Channel 12) use inappropriate file video with the story about BAE Systems in West Chester slashing 100 jobs? We saw employees smiling and applauding. If I’m wrong, then there is a bigger story there: Tristate workers celebrate loss of jobs in defense industry. GE take note: Maybe your Evendale people don’t want to build that redundant fighter jet engine that the Pentagon under Republican and Democratic presidents wants to kill.

• Years ago, when newspapers had an exclusive story, we saved it for the final edition and didn’t share it with the Associated Press until almost midnight. That stopped the AP from distributing our scoop until after late local TV news broadcasts. It was a primitive but effective way of retaining the kind of exclusivity that we hoped would bring readers and hold subscribers. We really wanted people to preface their retelling the next day with, “I read it in The Enquirer.”

I edited Enquirer Sunday and Monday local pages for years before computers, and all I had to do is keep the carbon copies of our stories out of the AP in-basket until 11 p.m. Often, we didn’t tell the lone AP guy what was coming lest he alert clients to a major story in the works. That’s part of what AP does – it shares stories among clients and members.

I could get away with that because I didn’t have colleagues who lived and died by the speed with which they could post the latest news online. In more ways than one, the Internet turned that model upside down. Not only do papers scoop themselves online, but they give their content away. Not only does this allow everyone a chance to use the stories and images, but the race to be first reflects the unrealized hope that readers will boost ad revenues with loyalty to news sites that tell them exciting stuff first.

Meanwhile, paying reporters, photographers and editors and giving away their stories online is proving to be a dubious business model.

No one has found a fail-safe alternative. Some papers publish online daily and deliver print editions a couple times a week. Others try pay walls (online subscriptions) of various kinds. The Enquirer is serious about fighting back, and I’m never surer of an editor’s intentions than when he admits uncertainty.

Tom Callinan is a print journalist adapting to a never-imagined electronic world. I’ve written about his efforts to save the core of the daily print edition. Now he's putting new muscle into efforts to minimize online plagiarism – that is, others using Enquirer content without permission or paying.

It’s an old battle. I remember driving to work, listening to local radio news presenters reading my stories to me over the air. Had those been AP versions, they would have been safe, but this truly was rip (out of the Enquirer) and read. A letter or two from our lawyers cooled that.

Dailies aren’t the only victims. WVXU asks listeners to call if cable systems are rebroadcasting WVXU programs – that is, plagiarizing its content.

Another approach Callinan described in a recent Sunday column explores the high-tech version of hiding copies of stories until it’s too late for local TV: Enquirer “print only” stories that won’t appear online for 24 hours. Smart. It adds value to the print edition, which still provides most of the income and news.

I doubt that the paper will bring back the ghastly jingle “I read it in The Enquirer,” but the sentiment is there. Callinan and his crew want people to talk about it because they read it in The Enquirer.

• Southern Poverty Law Center’s Spring Intelligence Report names hate and “patriot/militia” groups and their hometowns in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. It’s a resurgent movement, like that seen during previous modern economic troubles. As before, members say they suspect the federal government of bizarre and often contradictory conspiracies, and it doesn’t help that Obama is the nation’s first mixed-race president. Years ago, I tracked similar groups whether in Columbus, Elmwood Place, Westwood or nearby counties. They were overwhelmingly blue collar, male and white to the point that they bragged about a black member in Columbus.

They distrusted almost everyone connected with federal government, national and international finance and the United Nations. Some didn’t (or wouldn’t) pay federal income taxes, saying it was unconstitutional. Others worried about black helicopters and foreign troops in blue helmets. Not a few feared FEMA was building concentration camps around the country. It was a scary world for them, made worse by often-personal financial hardships and limited employment opportunities.

I always introduced myself as an Enquirer reporter. When they called me, they knew they were calling me at the office or my home. My approach? To portray them as they saw themselves. Without exception, militiamen were volubly hostile to “the media” but gracious to me even though I excused myself from one group’s invitation to join their live ammunition exercises in nearby farms and woods.

I also suspected that more than one hustler stoked their fears for profit, selling a year’s supply of survival meals, food supplements, water purification (fluoride is a plot to emasculate white American men), more weapons, uniforms and the like.

They also feared someone would confiscate their guns or make it difficult to buy ammunition, an anxiety that can only be greater today with inflammatory sites on the Internet. Election of a Democrat to the White House stokes this fire despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is an individual right.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com

 
 
 
 

 

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