The Error of Judgment: Struggling for Neutrality in Science and Journalism
Article first published online: 2 DEC 2002
Volume 16, Issue 6, pages 1451–1453, December 2002
How to Cite
(2002), The Error of Judgment: Struggling for Neutrality in Science and Journalism. Conservation Biology, 16: 1451–1453. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.01667.x
- Issue published online: 2 DEC 2002
- Article first published online: 2 DEC 2002
Recent exchanges between the Society for Conservation Biology and the Society for Environmental Journalists suggest that a degree of antipathy exists between scientists and journalists. Two members of the Society for Conservation Biology's Media Committee characterized the typical scientist's reaction to journalists as follows: “At best, [they] interrupt whatever you're doing. At worst, they misquote and misrepresent you” ( Jacobson & Meadows 2000). Ecologists frequently assume that reporters are “demanding, they want everything immediately, and then half the time they get it wrong” (Mathews-Amos 2000). Journalists, in turn, are exasperated by scientists' reluctance to discuss both the technical aspects of their research and its relevance to the general public (Mathews-Amos 2000; Meadows & Johns 2001).
Miscommunication between these two groups seems to be driven by the perception that scientists and journalists have different ethical and operational standards. I believe that this perception is erroneous. The challenges of balancing objectivity and opinion and of engaging an audience without compromising the facts are inherent to both science and journalism. The struggle to overcome these challenges confronts scientists and journalists as individuals and is the basis on which the public judges the professional credibility of both groups. I submit that the crux of the conflict between scientists and journalists is not that the disciplines have distinct codes and obstacles, but that each community is trying to coerce the other into shedding its protective coat of objectivity and crossing the threshold into advocacy.
The views of the late Meg Greenfield, former editorial-page editor for the Washington Post, may help dispel skepticism that scientists and journalists alike grapple with the specter of advocacy. The professional ideal that Greenfield (2001) described may sound remarkably familiar to ecologists.
The working premise is that [journalists] are meant to be (or to be perceived as) uncontaminated vessels of truth and justice … Our institutional propaganda frequently makes it sound as if we were that model jury the courts are always looking for in over-publicized criminal cases: wholly open; wholly disengaged; emotionally, politically, and ideologically blank.
In fact, the extent to which journalists strive to maintain emotional distance from their subjects and the language they use to describe their dilemma echoes a debate that has been central to conservation biology since its conception as a discipline. Greenfield asserted that total objectivity is an unrealistic epitome that “only the incorrigibly cold and arrogant, not to say the somewhat crazy, could authentically achieve.” Moreover, she contended that the pretense is self-defeating for “Our critics gleefully detect in us an inability to meet the impossible standards we have set for ourselves in thousands of terminally earnest conferences and printed exchanges on the subject.” Greenfield's statements may be arguable, but they invite a conversation undeniably similar to the debates that conservation biologists continue to revisit.
Recognition that our ideologies regarding objectivity are virtually identical is a base from which scientists and journalists can collaborate to improve public awareness and knowledge of conservation issues. By working together to make the public aware of the tradeoffs between concise and complete information and between fact and opinion, we silence some of our harshest critics—ourselves. Our unexpected coalition itself is likely to draw attention, which we can then train on more substantive issues. I believe that there is ample basis for collaboration among conservation biologists and members of the media to inform and educate society at large.
In the quest to find common ground between science and journalism, it may be helpful to examine some of the charges that frequently have been leveled by either group. Most indictments can be countered on the ground that the accused party was merely trying to retain its objectivity. Take the scientists' lament that journalists are irresponsible and tend to trivialize scientists' stories. For example, scientists complain that journalists are not sufficiently critical of their sources, that not all issues have more than one legitimate side, that most news coverage is superficial, and that media reports focus on problems to the exclusion of solutions ( Meadows & Johns 2001).
Now consider this litany in light of journalists' conscious efforts to be as objective as possible. First, think about the claim that journalists do not check the facts with experts. There are few ground rules for validating “expertise.” Even in academia, authority often lies in the eye of the beholder. Particularly for a third party without access to an informal, inside network of professional opinion, it can be extremely difficult to verify that a source is either unimpeachable or disreputable. And if the generally recognized experts are reluctant to speak with the media, where does that leave the reporter with a tight deadline?
Next comes the reproach that some issues do not have multiple valid sides. For example, most conservation biologists cringe at reading quotations from sources that dispute that Earth's climate is changing. Yet as citizens it is drilled into our heads from an early age that giving equal exposure to diverse perspectives is the essence of fairness. Again, the willingness of “experts” to consult with journalists becomes key to media coverage that is both accurate and adequate to meet the criterion of objectivity.
Scientists further contend that the press should provide “perspective and context” for their stories ( Meadows & Johns 2001) and that the media should focus on successful collaboration in addition to contention. These are reasonable points, but reporters may fear that their objectivity will be questioned if they propose resolutions. This quandary is familiar to many conservation biologists: what is the extent of our responsibility to provide decision-makers with information versus that of our responsiblity to suggest how policy might be adjusted in response to that knowledge? It seems disingenuous to expect reporters to intuit the solutions that conservation biologists are hesitant to champion themselves.
Scientists also accuse journalists of sensationalism, yet it can be extraordinarily difficult to define where packaging ends and misrepresentation begins. Is it less dishonest to exaggerate the implications of one's research when applying for a grant than when appealing for societal recognition and support? Perhaps the moral litmus test of a written or oral presentation, especially in a mission-oriented situation, should be whether the content is factual rather than whether the facts have been overdramatized. Limited histrionics—a flashy headline, for instance—might be justified if the public attention it draws then can be trained on the more prosaic specifics. “Antarctic Ice Shelf Collapses Into Sea” (Washington Post, 20 March 2002:A03) may have been a bit overstated (compare with “Large Ice Shelf in Antarctica Disintegrates at Great Speed,”[New York Times, 20 March 2002]), but the proclamation almost certainly attracted readers to an article that otherwise was informative and restrained.
Journalists likewise have their gripes with a scientific community that often seems to be obstinate and uncooperative. To wit: scientists frequently are distant, long-winded, and incomprehensible (Meadows & Johns 2001). Journalists' frustrations might be alleviated if they heeded scientists' concerns that oversimplification will tarnish if not jeopardize their credibility. Like the journalists Meg Greenfield (2001) described, scientists are “professionally admonished to freeze many of our ordinary human instincts … lest we endanger our objectivity or adulterate our product with an excess of understanding … or, God forbid, sympathy.” Thus, “highlighting emotional connections” ( Meadows & Johns 2001) to research or other conservation actions may seem antithetical to maintaining scientific objectivity.
Translating complex technical information into layman's terms is a struggle for scientists for two main reasons. First, we worry about errors of omission—that we inadvertently may create an illusion of scientific certainty that is not only misleading but may come back to haunt us. Second, quite frankly, the task is not easy. Scientists sometimes wrestle for days to abstract their research for an audience of their peers. Distilling results and conclusions for the public at large is even more difficult. I do not mean to suggest that the benefits of improved communication are not worth the effort, only to emphasize that the effort is considerable.
Many of the typical responsibilities of a professional scientist could fairly be characterized as “reporting.” Academics and practitioners alike write papers for colleagues, speak at meetings, summarize goals and accomplishments for funding agencies, and reach out to the public through various media. In all of these contexts, we are well aware of the need to market as well as to describe our work. Yet scientists are notoriously poor publicists for their disciplines (albeit some are rather more effective at self-promotion!). Increasing media exposure to conservation issues therefore may be the single most effective way to increase society's exposure to conservation issues. The notion that journalists should be regarded as allies rather than adversaries is by no means novel.
Although scientists realize that they need the media's help in promoting their objectives and achievements, they have tended to be critical of the manner in which science is reported in the press. Journalists realize that they need their sources but are exasperated by aloof and pedantic ecologists. Both professions deserve some reproach. Not all journalists are sufficiently careful about checking quotations, and many scientists are reticent to speak with journalists. These clear areas for improvement notwithstanding, the missions and hurdles of science and journalism are actually closely aligned in the service of objectivity. By uniting the forces of information and communication, we may compel decision-makers to take actions that will benefit both biodiversity and society. It may indeed prove possible “to live at the center of [scientific] and journalistic influence … without losing your principles, detachment, or individual human qualities” ( Beschloss 2001).
- Beschloss, M. R. 2001. Afterword. In M. Greenfield, Washington. Public Affairs, New York.
- Greenfield, M. 2001. Washington. Public Affairs, New York.
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