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A Balancing Act

By Keith Kloor
Jan 4, 2011 2:33 AMNov 20, 2019 5:12 AM


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I'm going to nitpick this lament by James Fallows:

One of the basic functions of journalism is to say: This is true, and that is false. There are other functions, but establishing bedrock "world is round / sun rises in the east / 1+ 1 = 2" verities is a big one. In today's political environment, when so many simple facts are disputed, journalists can feel abashed about stating plainly what is true. With an anticipatory cringe about the angry letters they will receive or the hostile blog posts that will appear, they instead cover themselves by writing, "according to most scientists, the sun rises in the east, although critics say...."

I assume that Fallows is referring to newspaper journalism, where attribution (in news stories) is embedded in the reporter's DNA. He knows this but for some reason gives the impression that reporters rely on "false balance" attribution to avoid accusations of bias from angry readers or bloggers. However, there is a recent example of newspaper journalism where the reporters were not at all "abashed about stating plainly what is true," and they were hammered--by fellow journalists in prominent perches. I'm referring to this December 8 story in The Chicago Tribune by Patricia Callahan and Trine Tsouderoson. It's an unabashed takedown of the so-called "chronic lyme disease" diagnosis and its advocates. So unabashed, in fact, that science journalist Paul Raeburn found it wanting for lack of attribution. Pamela Weintraub, features editor at Discover magazine (and author of this related book), was similarly critical of the article. (That whole comment thread at Science Tracker is worth a read.) Personally, I'm still a little taken aback by the fierce reaction to the Chicago Tribune piece from Raeburn and Weintraub. I don't think their criticism (or dismissive tone) is warranted. As Orac notes in his own response to Raeburn and Weintraub:

The bottom line is that Weintraub's complaint is primarily also about how Callahan and Tsouderos didn't fall for the "tell both sides" mantra that all too many journalists fall prey to when writing about dubious medicine and pseudoscience.

I think it's more complicated than that. The Chicago Tribune story was not written in the dry, boilerplate style that characterizes most newspaper stories. If it had appeared instead in a magazine (such as The Atlantic), where writers can write with more gumption and can stake out a position, I wonder if it would have been perceived differently. Well, definitely not by Weintraub, who, in a comment to Orac, writes:

I don't want to respond much on the science because to me, this is an issue of journalism, pure and simple: Any story done in this fashion, no matter what the topic, would have the same journalistic flaws and would violate the kind of journalistic practice we require at Discover and most other quality national magazines.

I'd be curious to learn what other science journalists think of this dust-up. And am I correct in thinking that the venue a story appears in perhaps colors the perception of it? Or is this just an unusual exception to the rule, in which, as Orac says, the criticism by some science journalists of the Chicago Tribune article amounts to

the opposite of what we skeptics, scientists, and supporters of science-based medicine complain about all the time about journalists, namely that Callahan and Tsouderos did not fall into the trap of false balance, did not give undue credence to pseudoscience, and did not "tell both sides" as though they had equal or roughly equal credence.

Obviously, this also has much relevance to discussion about climate change journalism. UPDATE: A reader has made me aware of some excellent commentary on the kerfuffle over the Chicago Tribune article. Which, as another reader points out, prompted this response from Weintraub.

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