by Judith Curry
Journalists should portray where the weight of evidence lies, but that is the least they should do, and they should not look to scientists for guidance anymore than an artist asks a bowl of cherries for advice about how to draw them! They should criticise, highlight errors, make a counterbalancing case if it will stand up, but don’t censor, even by elimination, don’t be complacent and say the science is settled in areas that are still contentious. The history of science and of journalism is full of those reduced to footnotes because they followed that doctrine.
David Whitehouse has a very good article on science journalism at the Huffington Post. Some excerpts:
The internet has seen coverage of science issues in the news media becoming more homogenous. Many survive as a science journalist just by paying attention to press releases and reproducing them, as long as others do the same.
This lip service is not good enough, and editors should wise up that science journalism has lost its edge and demand reform. It has also become uncritical and therefore not journalism. Too many who profess to practice journalism are the product of fashionable science communication courses that have sprung up in the past fifteen years. It’s my view that this has resulted in many journalists being supporters of, and not reporters of, science. There is a big difference.
Many have become advocates for science that are too close to the scientists they report on. Scientists even run prizes for science journalists! Because of this back slapping closeness, many journalists lack detachment and by implication judgment about the stories they cover.
Journalism is about not taking sides, or about being a cheerleader. It’s about shaking the tree, about asking award questions, about standing in the place of those who can’t ask such questions, and being persistent, unpopular and dogged. It’s about moral authority, something science in BBC News has lost, and it’s about old-fashioned scoops. It’s not about being part of the spectrum of communicating science – which is something that scientists and non-journalistic broadcasters should do – it is a vital aspect of democracy. It is neither an extension of the scientific establishment, nor even its friend or on its side, and it is fundamentally different from science communication.
That some active and contentious scientific topics, like climate science with all its unknowns, complexities and implications, are placed beyond debate because they are deemed “settled” is wrong. Good journalism is the antithesis of a crude expression like “we’ve gone beyond that” allied to an over simplistic view of science. Climate science in particular is reported far too narrowly with much important peer-reviewed research ignored, and with environmental reporters far too concerned with doing down those they define as sceptics. Forget the sceptics, just report the science properly. It will all come out in the wash.
Journalism and the climategate emails
The Climategate emails have raised the issue as to whether some journalists have become too cozy with the scientists to be objective in their reporting.
Andy Revkin appeared prominently, and has responded to such charges [here]. Since 2006 (when I have been reading and interacting with Revkin), I would say his defense rings true to my ears. While you may not always like what he writes, he thinks for himself and isn’t in anyone’s pocket.
Christopher Booker has written a report entitled “The BBC and Climate Change: A Triple Betrayal.” The report critically reviews the BBC’s coverage of climate change issues against its statutory obligation to report ‘with due accuracy and impartiality’. From the GWPF press release:
His report, The BBC and Climate Change: A Triple Betrayal, shows that the BBC has not only failed in its professional duty to report fully and accurately: it has betrayed its own principles, in three respects:
- First, it has betrayed its statutory obligation to be impartial, using the excuse that any dissent from the official orthodoxy was so insignificant that it should just be ignored or made to look ridiculous.
- Second, it has betrayed the principles of responsible journalism, by allowing its coverage to become so one-sided that it has too often amounted to no more than propaganda.
- Third, it has betrayed the fundamental principles of science, which relies on unrelenting scepticism towards any theory until it can be shown to provide a comprehensive explanation for the observed evidence.
“Above all, the BBC has been guilty of abusing the trust of its audience, and of all those compelled to pay for it. On one of the most important and far-reaching issues of our time, its coverage has been so tendentious that it has given its viewers a picture not just misleading but at times even fraudulent,” Christopher Booker said.