Sunday, October 30, 2005

Give five minutes to Hitler, five to the Jews

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'--One of the more infuriating laws of modern American journalism is that there are always two sides to every story, that both sides deserve equal treatment in the story, and that we leave it up to the readers to sort it all out. It’s called "balance." The headline to this story is a joke often told in television news rooms by reporters who are forced into this kind of "balance" by timid or politically correct editors. It’s called the "Hitler rule." Whole newspapers (hello Minneapolis) have had their reputations destroyed following this maxim. It happens in science writing all the time, and usually it is the science writer whose stories are victimized by it. It happened to me occasionally, and one of the foremost proponents of this rule was John Carroll, the former and widely lamented editor of the Los Angeles Times, who left the paper when he could no longer stand the business plan of the Tribune Company. (And bravo to him). He is a great editor, but he had this one problem.

The fact is that there are not always two sides to every story and both sides should not be given equal weight if you are going to report the story accurately.

Don’t believe me? Try coverage of evolution and the fight over "intelligent design." Coverage of the case of Kitmiller v. Dover Area School District, now on-going in backwater Pennsylvania, is a great example.

Let’s say it up front. Biologic evolution is to biology as gravity is to physics. A whole sciences is based on it. It seems to be the word “theory” that causes a problem. To laymen, especially those with intellectual challenges, “theory” means something we think is right but we aren’t quite sure of yet. We’re working on it. To a scientist, "theory" is an explanation subject to proof. It is, according to the dictionary: “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses; true in fact and theory.” It is not something we are working on; it is something we are trying to illuminate and explain. Big difference.

So when journalists are writing about the evolution wars, they need to understand that there are not two sides to the story. That usually works out well when science writers are doing the writing because we know this, but in recent years, the dispute, which has vast political ramifications, is increasingly being turned over to generalists or political writers, who don’t know better. (One editor at my old newspaper once told me that any good reporter could cover any story equally. That’s demonstrable nonsense, demonstrable by taking, say, your education writer and turning her loose covering the NFL. If she is not a knowledgeable fan, you get what you deserve.)

For a good discussion of this, I recommend the Columbia Journalism Review’s Daily on-line site, edited by one of my former editors, Steve Lovelady (who did not have the above problem). The piece by Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, shows how even great newspapers like The Washington Post, can screw this up. (Science writers love to tell the story of the time the Post, deciding that its renowned medical specialists were too "close" to the subject to write about the War on Cancer accurately, turned the assignment over to some of its general assignment and political reporters and who blew it so badly the paper had to turn an entire letters-to-the-editor pages over to outraged experts who picked through steaming piles of mistakes.) It points out one story in March in which Peter Slevin of the Post followed the Hitler rule, giving "intelligent design" the same gravitas as evolution. He is hardly alone.
As evolution, driven by such events, shifts out of scientific realms and into political and legal ones, it ceases to be covered by context-oriented science reporters and is instead bounced to political pages, opinion pages, and television news. And all these venues, in their various ways, tend to deemphasize the strong scientific case in favor of evolution and instead lend credence to the notion that a growing “controversy” exists over evolutionary science. This notion may be politically convenient, but it is false.
What they say! There is no controversy in science about evolution any more than there is a controversy over global warming. To imply to readers otherwise is a disservice and terrible journalism. There simply are not two sides to this story.
We reached our conclusions about press coverage after systematically reading through seventeen months of evolution stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post; daily papers in the local areas embroiled in the evolution debate (including both papers covering Dover, Pennsylvania, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Topeka, Kansas, Capital-Journal); and relevant broadcast and cable television news transcripts. Across this coverage, a clear pattern emerges when evolution is an issue: from reporting on newly discovered fossil records of feathered dinosaurs and three-foot humanoids to the latest ideas of theorists such as Richard Dawkins, science writers generally characterize evolution in terms that accurately reflect its firm acceptance in the scientific community. Political reporters, generalists, and TV news reporters and anchors, however, rarely provide their audiences with any real context about basic evolutionary science. Worse, they often provide a springboard for anti-evolutionist criticism of that science, allotting ample quotes and sound bites to Darwin’s critics in a quest to achieve "balance." The science is only further distorted on the opinion pages of local newspapers.
Want to know why we are the only civilized place on the planet that is still discussing this issue? Want to know the origin of the Kansas jokes? Journalism and its false balance is part of the reason.

Good on CJR Daily.

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