Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Science journalism: let's see some.

Do you ever miss good science journalism? I do, and I'm not the only one.

Panda's Thumb notes the story by Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet in the Columbia Journalism Review on how science journalists have done in covering the evolution vs. intelligent design battles.

The short answer: not so well.

The average American who reads a newspaper — and not just a little local paper, but a paper like The Washington Post, The New York Times, or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — could hardly be blamed for thinking there's a real live scientific controversy brewing here, given the kind of coverage the battles get. Scrupulously "even handed", the articles print claims from evolution opponents with parallel claims from scientists, then leave it for the reader to sort out. But how do you do that over your coffee if you don't have a firm foundation in scientific reasoning?

"Objective" reporting seems to have become a formula whereby you quote an equal number of people on each side of an issue and leave it at that. Context? What's that?

Turns out, it's what your reader needs to make sense of science reporting.

But of course, people who go into journalism aren't necessarily any better versed in scientific reasoning than are their readers. So maybe science writers put together this kind of "fair and balanced" reporting because, not having a firm scientific foundation to use to assess what they're observing and getting from their sources, can't figure out how to avoid the "experts disagree" storyline. In other words, the scientifically naive are leading the scientifically naive.

Mooney and Nisbet make some recommendations:

So what is a good editor to do about the very real collision between a scientific consensus and a pseudo-scientific movement that opposes the basis of that consensus? At the very least, newspaper editors should think twice about assigning reporters who are fresh to the evolution issue and allowing them to default to the typical strategy frame, carefully balancing “both sides” of the issue in order to file a story on time and get around sorting through the legitimacy of the competing claims. As journalism programs across the country systematically review their curriculums and training methods, the evolution “controversy” provides strong evidence in support of the contention that specialization in journalism education can benefit not only public understanding, but also the integrity of the media. For example, at Ohio State, beyond basic skill training in reporting and editing, students focusing on public-affairs journalism are required to take an introductory course in scientific reasoning. Students can then specialize further by taking advanced courses covering the relationships between science, the media, and society. They are also encouraged to minor in a science-related field.

With training in covering science-related policy disputes on issues ranging from intelligent design to stem-cell research to climate change, journalists are better equipped to make solid independent judgments about credibility, and then pass these interpretations on to readers. The intelligent-design debate is one among a growing number of controversies in which technical complexity, with disputes over “facts,” data, and expertise, has altered the political battleground. The traditional generalist correspondent will be hard-pressed to cover these topics in any other format than the strategy frame, balancing arguments while narrowly focusing on the implications for who’s ahead and who’s behind in the contest to decide policy. If news editors fail to recognize the growing demand for journalists with specialized expertise and backgrounds who can get beyond this form of writing, the news media risk losing their ability to serve as important watchdogs over society’s institutions.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes — more science education for the reporters! And, while we're at it, more for the people who read the newspapers. And, might I add, scientific reasoning seems like good subject matter for any reporter, at least to the extent that reporters are in the business of collecting facts and testimony, reporting them accurately, and trying to present a reasonable story about what they mean. Every time a reporter goes to a story knowing what the story is going to be before conducting any interviews or collecting any facts, we may be getting an interesting story, but we're not getting news.

There certainly is a political dimension to the evolution vs. intelligent design wrestling match — as there is to other scientific stories. But the politics can't be divorced from questions that are intimately related to what the scientific community is out to accomplish and how scientists set about getting the job done. In this case, you can't just choose which side to stand with; you're also choosing whether you're on the side of sound scientific reasoning. I'm not sure Joe Q. Newspaper-reader gets that this is the choice he's being asked to make.


At 8:26 PM, Blogger kmsqrd said...

As an occasional reader of the AJC, I can tell you the paper back home in the suburb of cornfields does a better, more rigorous job of discussing the news. Please don't lump it in with WP or NTY, it just doesn't go there.

As for the general newspaper reader, I'm not sure they understand what is required for sound scientific reasoning, much less possess the ability to make such a distinction.


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