News Reporting and a Technically Complex Society

As a part of the Carnival of the Liberals, I wrote a post about our failing political discourse. Here’s something related from the archives.

In an excellent post on news reporting, Thoughts from Kansas writes (italics mine):

The same thing is a major part of the ongoing creationism battles. A good reporter with a background in science would not feel obliged to go to a scientist and get a quote to balance a story about creationists. Nor would such a reporter feel obliged to troll the waters for some bottom-feeding creationist to “balance” some claim about actual science.
But that’s what many reporters do. And if they fail to do so, some hard-working editor will send them off to call the ID Network or the Discovery Institute. Science reporters and science editors don’t do that, but political reporters, or overworked local news reporters who have to cover a couple of events every day, don’t have time to be keeping track of the latest state of science. We’re lucky if they have more than a high school biology class from 30 years ago. The same goes for political reporters covering economic issues with a good high school algebra class, and a vague memory of trig…

The problem is that spinmongers and PR flacks have found the cheat codes for modern journalism. Whine and send press releases if your side of every inane issue isn’t given equal weight with the other side, no matter whether it deserves equal footing. Treat professionals as no more consequential than non-experts with an axe to grind. Leave it to the public to sort out the difference. Teach the controversy.

In my current job, I have to speak with reporters or advise those who do speak with reporters about complex public health and microbiological issues. In my experience, the science reporters do their homework, but too often, the ‘general’ reporters don’t really know anything. So what the generalists do is fall back on what they do know, which is often not germane to the science at hand. That’s fine-the social and political effects of science should be examined-but at the same time, the public often needs to be educated about the content of the science (e.g., don’t drink out of your fish tank and worry about antibiotic use in farming. Note: I thought this story was well done and an example of good reporting). This is all the more important when elected officials, in the guise of improving a policy, gut it. To prevent that from happening, citizens need to understand the details, since that’s where the devil lies.
I’m not sure how to fix this. Perhaps there’s a role for the blogosphere in all of this, in that what is needed isn’t stenography, but analysis and synthesis. But I think this problem will only get worse as so many issues become more and more technically complex.
An aside: often, a political ‘debate’ will purposely be made more complex than it needs to be by one of the sides because the confusion, and resulting belief that there is no solution to a problem, is politically advantageous.

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2 Responses to News Reporting and a Technically Complex Society

  1. bigTom says:

    The problem is only intensified by the ballot initiative process. Most of these appear as a small abstract on the ballot, plus some difficult to discern legal boilerplate. Even highly intelligent voters are left trying to make quick decisions about complex issues with little information. Supposedly the representaional system, by which full time elected representatives, aided by expert staff was designed to solve this problem.
    The one courtesy that journalists should extend to their expert sources, is a chance to read, and correct mistakes before publishing. Nothing is more discouraging than to think you clearly explained something, and then discover you’ve been hopelessly misparaphrased.

  2. bigTom,
    actually, sometimes, with science stories, you get that chance. Not always, though.

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