The Media on Science: Covering ‘All Sides’ or the Facts?

by Bill Chameides | July 25th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Should politics be trumping science — and dictating news coverage?

As Britain reels from the ongoing, phone-hacking media scandal (and U.S. media watchers look on to see if any related wrongdoings have occurred on this side of the pond), the subject of the media’s science coverage popped back into the news last week. (See earlier posts on science coverage here, here, and here.)

It all started last year when the British Broadcasting Corporation announced it had commissioned a review of the “the accuracy and impartiality of” its science coverage. The resulting report [pdf], produced by Steve Jones, a geneticist from the University College London, found that “both the quality and quantity of BBC’s science coverage are as good, if not better, than most public news media outlets.” Whether that assessment is actual praise or damning by faint praise depends, I guess, upon what you think of the coverage of “most public news media.”

But Jones did have a specific criticism and it relates to the BBC’s coverage of climate change. According to Science Insider, a blog maintained by Science magazine, the report concluded that:

“While most of the BBC’s dedicated science coverage of climate change was excellent, the topic’s coverage by BBC’s non-science journalists too often held to a rigid view of ‘due impartiality‘ and gave ‘fringe views’ too loud a voice.”

This is a criticism that has also been leveled at American news coverage of climate change: many climate scientists and supporters of a proactive national policy on climate change have opined that the imperative to present a “balanced” view has ended up giving undue weight to climate skeptics which in turn presents to the public an unbalanced (as opposed to a balanced) view of the state of climate science. (See here, here [pdf], and here.)

In a recent report of the U.S. National Academies Committee on America’s Climate Choices (full disclosure — I served as vice chair) stated that “U.S. media sometimes present aspects of climate change that are uncontroversial among the scientific research community as being matters of serious scientific debate. Such factors likely play a role in the increasing polarization of public beliefs about climate change.”

However, one American scientist and skeptic, Roger Pielke Jr., of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research in Boulder, Colorado, takes issue with this notion.

“The reason the media is covering [both sides of climate change],” he argues, according to Science Insider, “is not because it’s interesting science, but because politicians are debating it.” The key tenet of his argument, I gather, is that when a scientific issue has political implications, the science is no longer reported as science but as politics and therefore requires balanced coverage in which all sides are covered equally.

I’ve got two problems with Pielke’s argument.

For one, we don’t provide equal coverage to all sides in a political debate, the Communications Act of 1934 notwithstanding. Imagine a presidential debate with candidates duking it out from every fringe party our nation’s got — and we’ve got a bunch. Imagine if every news story on politics required a quote from a representative from each of these parties. It could be called balanced, but could you consider it good reporting?

More important, in addition to striving for balance, the media has another primary responsibility: to provide the public with facts. When some politician or scientist says something that is not true, shouldn’t a chief responsibility of the media be to point out the falsehood? When a scientist claims something that clearly goes against the consensus of the scientific community, shouldn’t the public be informed of that fact in order to make an informed judgment?

Consider, if you will, the “Flat Earth Society.” Founded informally in the early 1800s by an Englishman named Samuel Birley Rowbotham and then formally in 1956 by Samuel Shenton, the group apparently believes that the Earth is flat and that all evidence to the contrary including pictures from space have been fabricated. (Deaths of two leaders and a fire appear to have severely curtailed the society’s activities of late and it is not at all clear what they believe these days, though the website reports that membership is open.)

Space travel is a political issue — it has been funded by federal dollars — and in that context, the Flat Earthers’ position is clearly germane: If all space travel is a hoax, why fund it? In the interest of balanced coverage of politically relevant scientific issues, would it be reasonable to get a statement from a Flat Earther every time the media covered an event concerning space travel? Does anyone recall a Flat Earther quote in the recent coverage of the Atlantis space shuttle mission? Of course not. Theirs is a fringe viewpoint, irrelevant to the discussion.

So a perceived balance versus the facts. Here’s where I come down.

When it comes to science, the facts must trump politics. Science is based on objective facts, politics on value judgments.

In the specific case of climate change:

  1. That the globe has warmed over the last several decades is fact — anyone saying otherwise should be challenged with the facts.
  2. Study after study has shown that the climate skeptic view is inconsistent with the broad consensus of climate scientists (some might even say it is a fringe view: see here, here and here). It’s OK and even appropriate to allow that position to be heard by the public. But giving such a viewpoint equal time, without any reservations about how it is viewed by the scientific community, is misleading.
  3. Deciding what to do about climate change is ultimately a policy/political issue and should be treated differently.

Reporters don’t have to be “science gatekeepers,” as Science Insider puts it — but they do have a responsibility to investigate the facts and report them accordingly.

filed under: climate change, faculty, global warming, policy, politics, science
and: , , , , , , , , , , ,


All comments are moderated and limited to 275 words. Your e-mail address is never displayed. Read our Comment Guidelines for more details.

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr.
    Jul 25, 2011

    Hi Bill- What is it that earns me the term “skeptic”? I’m all for reporting of facts 😉 Maybe start here to get yours straight: Thanks!

    • Bill Chameides
      Aug 9, 2011

      My mistake — if that is your wish, I will not use skeptic to describe you in the future.

©2015 Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
how to contact us > | login to the site > | site disclaimers >

footer nav stuff