A question of balance…

by Jim Caryl

Giving equal attention to “all sides” can misrepresent the prevailing scientific consensus.

One of the major issues that is often debated in science journalism is one of balance. It is an issue raised to public awareness by a pamphlet produced by Chris Mooney entitled, ‘Blinded By Science: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality’ (Columbia Journalism Review, November 2004). In it he asserted:

…the journalistic norm of “balance” has no parallel in the scientific world and, when artificially grafted onto that world, can lead reporters to distort or misrepresent what’s known, to create controversies where none actually exist, or to fall prey to the ploys of interest groups who demand equal treatment for their “scientific” claims.

A journalist may try to find a compromise or objective ‘truth’ by combining numerous sources and affording them equal opportunity to give their opinions, and allow the reader to make up their mind. The question is, how well does this journalistic system of ‘objectivity’ serve a science journalist when reporting on science topics.

Science is based upon evidence based research, which is subject to peer review (the critique, by experts in the field, of any articles submitted for publishing). Science is also subject to continual testing in the scientific community, ultimately resulting in a consensus.

In science however, there may be such a prevailing consensus on a theory, thus to present this as equally weighted with conflicting opinions from ‘fringe’ scientists (which can include scientists with an industrial conflict of interest), or other opposing groups, is disingenuous and debases the peer review process.

Presenting a report that pits ‘complementary and alternative medicine’, which has no rigorous scientific evidence based, as an equally valid viewpoint to treatments and chemotherapies derived from evidence based medicine, is intellectually dishonest and damn right dangerous. Unfortunately, the ‘fringe’ view can be irresistible to some journalists when it presents an opportunity for a good scare story, who then trip over their own credulity in the rush to believe what they think will make a good story. This is how the great science ‘controversies’ of recent years got started, including the MMR-autism debate.

Peer-review is a much grander, self-supporting and greater engine for verifying the validity of a scientific position than any journalist is capable of themselves, and is thus to be trusted. Good science journalists adopt a principle of asking questions, verifying facts and presenting accurate information. Where there is a scientific consensus, it is this conclusion that the journalist has a duty to report, regardless of whether there is an conflicting or ‘fringe’ viewpoint; any such ‘fringe’ opinions or hearsay should be called upon to provide extraordinary proof for their extraordinary claims. A good journalist can behave as a useful science writer if they ditch the old formula of, as Mooney describes it, “he said/she said/we’re clueless” and leaving it for Joe Public to interpret; rather, the better approach is to assist Joe Public to assess the credibility of the different competing claims.

An informative transcript of a talk given by Chris Mooney at the Merck Science Journalism Student Awards Program can still be viewed on Google in HTML format.