Our (Adult) Education Crisis Continues: When Will Journalists Take More Responsibility for a Misinformed Public

(from here)

I post that picture from CNN because it’s funny in a pathetic sort of way. But a NY Times column by Timothy Egan about conservative denialism engages in a more subtle error (boldface mine):

The medical community was outraged after the Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann called a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer “dangerous,” and then passed on a know-nothingism from a stranger who said it could lead to “mental retardation.”

These health professionals were stirred to take a stand, as reported in a Science Times piece by my colleague Denise Grady, because ill-informed politicians can set back vaccination rates for years, ultimately leading to more premature deaths.

It would be nice to see this kind of collective corrective applied to other types of political malpractice as well — on the environment, for one.

I want to return to this is a second, but let’s continue with Egan:

Some of the leading Republican presidential candidates, stuffed with the best bad science that oil and coal companies can buy, continue to insist that global warming is a hoax. No matter that an overwhelming majority of climate scientists have long concluded that the earth is changing in a dangerous way, the deniers have found a home in Bachmann’s party.

And while it may be an applause line to bash professional consensus, gross misstatements can do real harm. If your neighbor said he was going to dump garbage on a sidewalk you both shared, you would hold him responsible for trashing the common ground. We should take the same attitude toward people who want to allow more poisons, carcinogens and greenhouse gases into the little orb we all inhabit.

“We look like a joke,” Bill Clinton said this week, on the growing crazy caucus of earth-unfriendly politicians. “If you’re an American, the best thing you can do is to make it politically unacceptable for people to engage in denial.”

Did you notice what’s missing? With vaccination lunacy, experts spoke up–they usually do. But the press reported what they said, and did not engage in he-said/she-said reporting. They were objective, and in being objective, discounted the anti-vax wackaloons. But with global warming, that is rarely the case. I don’t think one can blame the ‘experts’: there are far more experts with media savvy involved with global warming than vaccination supporters. The problem is that faith-tanks like the Heartland institute are given credence in news reports about environmental issues (is immunology somehow easier to understand than climate change?). This is a failure by way of imparting misinformation.

Jay Rosen, in discussing an NPR story about restrictions on women’s health clinics that perform abortions, made this point elegantly (boldface mine):

My complaint is not the usual one that you probably get: biased reporting. No. This is he said, she said reporting, one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, in which the NPR reporter washes her hands of determining what is true. The new Kansas regulations may be a form of harassment, intended to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers in that state. Or, alternatively, these rules may be sane, rational, common sense, sound policy: just normal rule-making by responsible public officials.

According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It knows of no way to adjudicate these clashing views. It is simply confused and helpless and the best it can do is pass on that helplessness to listeners of “Morning Edition.” Because there is just no way to know whether these new rules try to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers, or put common sense public policy goals into practice in Kansas. There is no standard by which to judge. There is no comparison that would help. There is no act of reporting that can tell us who has more of the truth on their side. In a word, there is nothing NPR can do! And so a good professional simply passes the conflict along. Excellent: Now the listeners can be as confused as the journalists.

It is obvious to me that there’s something else going on here. NPR has, in this case, allowed its desire to escape criticism to overwhelm its journalistic imagination. ”He said, she said” does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks. That’s putting your needs—for political refuge—ahead of mine as a listener. I don’t appreciate it. It makes me trust you less. And one more thing, a little lesson in realism. They’re going to attack you anyway, and crow in triumph when your CEO is forced out by those attacks. Ultimately there is no refuge, so you might as well do good journalism.

Maybe 0.0001%, if that, of the population will read the primary literature, or even a technical secondary report. When they want to learn about environmental issues, a key source is the mass media (which also drives how blogs handle issues–if it’s not reported, it can’t be commented upon). Yet some issues, such as vaccination (and increasingly evolution) are covered objectively, while others are not, such as global warming and government benefits.

What’s the difference between these two groups of issues? It isn’t a lack of advocates. With the latter, there is a massive corporate-funded propaganda campaign backing the lunacy. The issue is will news corporations decide that providing a good product to their customers is important enough to take political and commercial risks. As a fair number of news corporations are owned by larger conglomerates, I’m not entirely optimistic on this score.

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