The Sciences

Do Journo Watchers Ignore Environmental Beat?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJun 11, 2012 3:33 PM

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On twitter, British science journalist Martin Robbins recently said:

Mixing fact and opinion in journalism is inevitable. Anyone who thinks they write pure, unbiased fact is quite deluded.

This is true. Newspaper and (especially) magazine stories often have a specific angle or slant. So there is no such thing as pure objectivity. Journalists, like everyone else, have biases and preconceived notions that influence them. To counter this, and to provide news and information as fairly and accurately as possible, reporters strive to adhere to certain principles. In 2010, Mediashift had a nice post that laid out ten themes encompassing the universal principles of journalism. Here are the first three:

  1. Public interest Example: "... to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time" (American Society of Newspaper Editors)

  2. Truth and accuracy Example: "[The journalist] strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair" (National Union of Journalists, UK)

  3. Verification Example: "Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment... [The] discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment" (Principles of Journalism, from Project for Excellence in Journalism)

That third one is crucial. In recent weeks, I've been asking rather pointedly why mainstream media stories on reports issued from environmental advocacy organizations often don't make an effort to verify the findings in such reports. The stories tend to take the advocacy groups at their word, not bothering to scrutinize their claims. The same one-sided treatment is also on display with respect to big environmental studies published in prestigious journals. For example, look at the wave of "tipping point" articles that followed last week's publication of this study in Nature. A majority of them reported the study's findings in a straightforward fashion, quoting only from the Nature authors and paper. None were very probing and only a few stories provided any expert opinion independent of the study. (One terrible example of tacked on false balance was in this piece from the SF Chronicle.) A notable exception was Brandon Keim at Wired, whose story provided excellent contextual perspective and appropriate balance via a relevant expert. Oddly, science journalists don't seem to get all hot and bothered by substandard environmental reporting-unless it involves climate change, and that's usually to point out instances of false balance that give undue credence to climate contrarians. But when it comes to reporting on medical/drug/behavioral research, there is no shortage of criticism. (I should say that Knight's Science Journalism Tracker and CJR's Observatory are two places that do critically examine environmental coverage.) I've noticed that the sci-journalism hive mind, as reflected on twitter and in the blogosphere, pay little attention to how environmental issues are reported on. Why the blind spot when it comes to environmental journalism?

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