Science reporting, objectivity, advocacy, and global heating

What does it really mean to be “objective?” Someone trained in the sciences will have a different answer than someone trained as a journalist. Scientists and engineers most often use the following definition: “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations” (from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). Journalists, however, seem to use a very different definition, one that appears to create distortions by its fundamental nature.

Journalistic objectivity is based on the idea that, in order to be “objective,” one has to present factual information free of personal biases. However, in the process of pursuing ideal objectivity, sometimes very important information is left on the cutting room floor. For example, if a science journalist presents the evolution vs. intelligent design debate on equal terms, he has objectively indicated that there is a debate. But given that intelligent design (ID) isn’t even a scientific theory (ID cannot be tested empirically, therefore it cannot be considered a scientific hypothesis), the fact that ID was presented as equal to the scientific theory of evolution is itself a distortion. In this example, supposedly objective science reporting is inherently biased in favor of the non-scientific idea and biased against the actual science of evolution itself.

Objective reporting of global heating is in a similar position.

Today, Steve Outing of Editor & Publisher wrote a commentary about false objectivity in journalism and how it relates to the issue of global heating (Climate Change: Get Over Objectivity, Newspapers). In his commentary, Mr. Outing points out that “[t]he news sections of mainstream newspapers are still the realm of ‘objective journalism,’ where reporters hide (or purport to) their personal opinions and biases, and try to present a balanced view of any issue.” However, as Mr. Outing points out, presenting a “balanced” view of global heating doesn’t make sense – there isn’t anything resembling a serious debate about whether human beings are causing global heating because the current scientific consensus is that human burning of fossil fuels is causing global heating.

The few critics of the consensus are a small and shrinking group, who to most observers seem irrelevant. To the mainstream, they may as well be flat-earthers.

Why is it, then, that mainstream coverage of climate change is still mired, too often, in he-said, she-said reporting where both “sides” get their time? When the evidence is so overwhelming to support the idea that humans are changing the climate, why should the news industry give the tiny number of skeptics a higher percentage of time within a news report on their viewpoint than they deserve?

Even my own discussions of this topic give more credibility to the global heating deniers than they really deserve – my own Anti-global heating claims – a reasonably thorough debunking post is devoted expressly to addressing the scientific claims of that tiny, albeit vocal, minority.

So what does Mr. Outing propose instead? As you might expect from a commentary titled “Climate Change: Get Over Objectivity, Newspapers”, he proposes that, with settled issues such as global heating, newspapers return to their glorious “muckraking” days of yore when advocacy journalism was all the rage, and before journalists were stripped by editors and newspaper owners of their authority to advocate for what is right.

“Part of the problem is that journalists don’t realize what objectivity was in the first place,” says [Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University]. “From the beginning it was a way of limiting liability, and allowing journalists to take a pass when it’s hard to figure out who’s right and what’s really going on. From the beginning it was meant to dull the knife edge of the press. It was meant to ‘de-voice’ or defang the individual journalist, so that more people would be comfortable with the product. But the costs of that system have built up over time.”

I don’t personally agree with some of Mr. Outing’s suggestions for how newspapers could advocate on behalf of addressing global heating. Some of them, like soliciting ideas from readers or holding contests, strike me as outside what I’d like to see out of the dailies that I turn to for my news (although I admit that managing editors and publishers might not have my particular qualms on these issues). But one idea that isn’t beyond my comfort zone (and isn’t discussed in Mr. Outing’s commentary) is moving beyond “equal time for all views” as the standard by which journalistic objectivity is judged and instead moving toward a standard where factors like scientific consensus are included. If 99% of climate scientists believe that global heating is human-caused, then maybe 99% or so of general news articles about global heating should be focused on the consensus instead of the deniers. Only articles written specifically about global heating deniers and their hypotheses should contain more than that tiny fraction of information.

I don’t know if this would truly produce an objectively better standard of journalistic objectivity, but I do know that the system as it stands today is in desperate need of repair. This change would hardly break journalistic objectivity more than it already is.

Categories: Journalism, Science/Technology

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7 replies »

  1. Thanks for this, Brian – you point out succinctly the main problem with “objective” journalism – it’s based on a false premise of “fairness” that gives credence and intellectual traction to ideas that have, whether through science or statistical research, been debunked. Giving the imprimatur of validity to nonsense like “intelligent design” should not be a function of sound journalism.

    Well said.

  2. People as hard as they try cannot be totally “objective”. The only way they could be is if they had not formed an opinion prior to reporting on the subject. Still during their investigation they might find that believe one way or another. Still a good writer will find a way to put aside their feelings to a large extent.

    As to global warming I am not totally sold on it. I am a scientist and do not have enough long term data on it to believe it. Yes there is a warming trend here and there and we may have sped up a natural trend but I don’t think that it is completely just human products. The earth has warmed and cooled more times than humans can count. Till I can see long term data over a couple hundred years which is such a blip in the history of earth, I want to hear both sides of it all.

    Good Points Made

  3. If you’re really a scientist, how much data do you need? Seriously – this is an issue where the preponderance of the evidence is WAY past the point where there’s any real “debate.”

    Are there natural warming cycles? Sure. But this is like looking at a guy who was shot 20 times and saying “yeah, but he had an enlarged prostate.”

  4. Reply #1: (gonna break these up for space reasons)

    Objectivity is a worthy journalistic ideal, I suppose, but it’s certainly no more than that – an ideal.

    In reality there’s no such thing. For instance, say you’re doing a story on whether thingamajobs cause cancer. You interview some medical experts and you talk to the mouthpiece for Big Thingamajob and do a “balanced” story. Well, maybe it’s a 50/50 issue and maybe it isn’t, but what about the agenda-setting? After all, somebody somewhere decided that those minutes or column inches should be devoted to the thingamajob issue instead of Darfur, cancer, Iran, Blackwater, etc.

    And rest assured, that agenda-setting function is hardly objective.

  5. Reply #3:

    Even hardcore newsies are abandoning the SS Objectivity. Here’s what Geneva Overholser of the Missouri School of Journalism (and former Des Moines Register ME) had to say in 2004: “This was the year when it finally became unmistakably clear that objectivity has outlived its usefulness as an ethical touchstone for journalism…The way it is currently construed,

  6. I’ll let CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour speak for me:

    “Objectivity means trying to
    give all sides a hearing. It
    does not, in my view, mean
    treating all sides as equal.”

    Journalism, despite modernist pretensions, has always been a subjective enterprise. Any attempt to cast it as “objective” is willful ignorance of the realities of the business.

    Should it be a laudable, sought-after goal? Hell, no. A human being who attempts to be totally impartial