Reporting in the balance

During the AAAS session earlier this year on reporting on climate change, an interesting point popped up that is often forgotten about in science reporting: balance. The practise of balance is a very important one in any field of journalism. If you report on position A, you must also report on position B in an equal manner as to allow the reader to make up his or her own mind. This golden rule prevents propaganda and showing a single side to a story.

The whole debate on climate change has shown that balanced reporting is a practise that might not work so well for science journalism in particular. A question from the audience, from a scientist, made this clear. Why do reporters still feel the need to give coverage to skeptics of climate change. After all, when a journalist represents the opinion of a sceptic next to the opinion of for instance an IPCC scientist, the reader might be under the impression that both opinions are an equal representation of the scientific community, which is of course not true since skeptics are massively outnumbered by the scientists who believe we are in serious global trouble.

This begs the question if balance is applicable in science journalism? And are the public really done a disservice by the media when they are presented with skeptics of climate change? Very interesting questions which the panel unfortunately didn’t address. Instead Andrew Revkin gave the scientist a non-answer, completely missing the point. Lets hope this fundamental golden rule will be tested and tried at the next World Conference for Science Journalists.

Can science blogs save science journalism?

This discussion makes for a very interesting read. For most scientists and journalists alike, the process of communication about science to a wider audience is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. What particularly surprises me in this discussion is that Cole, a profesor of journalism, thinks the audience should become more science literate and that will bridge the gap between science and society.

However, it’s highly debatable whether factual information plays a big role in how people form their opinion on topics. Survey studies show that knowledge plays only a small part in explaining the variations in opinions, and we know from political communication studies that people only collect the information that they think is necessary to form their opinion. An interesting read, for instance, is arecent article by Matthew Nisbet and Robert Goidel.

There’s a whole world of science behind the process of science journalism. Let me know what you think about the necessity of science literacy and the role that science journalists play.