When in Doubt, Ask Questions (Balance Special, 4/4)

This article is written by Marc Pagen (The Netherlands).

For a novice in science journalism the current debate on balance, or rather the alleged inappropriate use of it, is puzzling. As a journalism student one is imprinted with the golden questions of journalism: “who, why, what, where, when, how, and so what?” In short, one is taught to be inquisitive and investigative. Furthermore, from virtually the first days in the classroom, there can be no misunderstanding about the journalist’s responsibility for informing the public and providing a full range of information with which to make informed decisions about a given topic. So why the controversy about balance in science reporting?

It has been said that journalists like to equate their professional norms, especially objectivity, with those in the scientific world and therefore implicitly trust scientific claims. However, there is no such thing as balance in science, which is an evidence-based discipline. Most issues are more complex than “two sides of the story”, and at a certain point overwhelming scientific evidence can diminish a “side” of an issue. It has been shown that giving equal attention to “all sides” can misrepresent the prevailing scientific consensus.

To me, the principles of journalism, such as objectivity and its recent lexical replacements, fairness, balance, accuracy, truth, and comprehensiveness, are not the real problem. However, a lazy form of journalism that makes no attempt to investigate scientific claims, is a very real problem.

Journalists have been reproached to possess insufficient scientific knowledge and therefore to fall all too easily for scientific-sounding claims that they can’t adequately evaluate on their own. Again, the problem lies in accepting claims on mere face value. Even when a journalist lacks knowledge on a topic, he or she should be able to access people who have and have them do the evaluation. Isn’t that what journalism is all about: asking the right questions?

In general, journalists should treat scientific claims with a healthy dose of skepticism, and find out what major peer-reviewed papers or assessments have to say about them. This professional proving ground can inform journalists about the relative merits of scientific claims, and allow them to “balance” their writings accordingly.

Any absence of such signs of scientific scrutiny should encourage journalists to dig even deeper beneath scientific claims and look into the credentials and funding of the scientists who embrace an alternative viewpoint. They should report if an alternative is supported only by industrial interests and be particularly wary of viewpoints embraced only by outsiders who have no credibility in the scientific discipline.

To me, balance is about investigating the context of claims and viewpoints, especially the how’s and why’s. Outsiders’ opinions might be interesting, but they’re not theories, and they might not deserve any coverage at all. It’s the responsiblity of a science journalist to make this distinction clear to the public.