Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"Why Scientists and Journalists Don’t Always Play Well Together"

Though mainly about stories appearing in the popular press on scientific inquiries, this article from David DiSalvo at Forbes makes the case that the quality of journalism has declined due to competitive and market pressures:
Scientists mistrust journalists because the popular market for news can, and very often does, affect how stories are told.  This is particularly true now, with the standard-bearers of traditional journalism giving way to the sprawling fragmentation of online news.  Many journalists have been forced to become mercenaries in a marketplace with few empires left to retain their services fulltime.  The pressures working against survival in this market are severe, and time constraints to produce an enormous amount of copy in any given week are rarely flexible.
But even before this market materialized, the traditional news outlets were showing signs of slippage on fact checking and filtering sensational claims from quality content.  And journalists, watching as chips of the stoic walls began crumbling, were under unmanageable pressure to produce to keep their jobs.
This is undoubtedly true of Reuters (we once read that journalists in the agency's Jerusalem Bureau are under pressure to produce at least one publishable story per day).  At the same time, there are powerful ideological forces at work in Reuters Middle East coverage which contribute to the problem of shoddy reporting.  As evidenced on our site, Reuters correspondents are deeply committed to advocating for the Palestinian Arabs and deeply hostile to successive Israeli governments, Jews who choose to live in the territories, and generally anyone who doesn't share their Arabist or radical-left world-view.  This leads to stories which are systematically biased, often dishonest, and carefully contrived to manipulate the audience into buying into that view.

DiSalvo argues that many science journalists are committed to faithful reporting:
On the other side, many science journalists resent the fact that these criticisms are unfairly painted across the profession.  For those of us who primarily focus on science topics, “getting it right” isn’t an academic exercise, it’s a heartfelt desire born of a passion for what we choose to write about.  For any serious writer, not treating their chosen subject with the care it deserves isn’t an option.
That, of course, does not mean science journalists always get it right.  But the writers I regularly speak to acknowledge this fact and are just as unhappy about it as the scientists.  The flip side of the coin is that some scientists are not immune to overhyping findings for a little extra ink.  The perfect storm occurs when an overhyping scientist meets an imprudent journalist; shortly thereafter a story about vaccines causing autism appears, as just one example.
DiSalvo is referring here to an article based on a study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, which found a link between childhood vaccinations and autism.  The study was later proven to be fraudulent but the results had already been touted in so many popular media outlets, the damage was done.  Today, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, there are millions of children not being vaccinated by their parents for fear of inducing autism.

As it happens, The Lancet also ran an article last year on alleged damage done to the health of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip due to the war with Israel in 2008-09 and subsequent goods embargo.  Reuters journalist Kate Kelland promoted these findings in a story published on the Reuters website two days before the article appeared in The Lancet:
In a study of around 2,000 children and adolescents, she [Kholoud Nasser from the Ministry of Education in Ramallah] found that one in four misses breakfast -- the main indicator of healthy eating habits -- while one in 10 is anaemic, and one in 17 is stunted. Around 2 percent are underweight and 15 percent are either overweight or obese.
As we pointed out at the time, studies show that more than one in three children in the United States misses breakfast.  And according to the United Nations, Palestinian children are among the healthiest in the Middle East.  Only Qatar has a lower rate of stunting across the Arab states and the Palestinian rate actually fell from one in 10 between 2003 and 2008, to one in 17 based on Nasser's more recent study.  Contrary to the innuendo contained in The Lancet article and uncritically parroted by Reuters, there was no scientific evidence that Israeli actions were damaging the health of Palestinian children.

Thus, The Lancet was once again guilty of publishing a study born of deceit, and Reuters, eager to demonize Israel as part of its Palestinian advocacy campaign, was only too happy to help peddle it.

As DiSalvo would say, "a perfect storm".

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