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How Should Scientists Work with the Media and How Should Journalists Report on the Debate Over Evolution?

The Scidev Network is run out of the UK and seems to be focused on Latin America, South America, Africa, the Middle-East and Asia.

The Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) aims to provide reliable and authoritative information about science and technology for the developing world.
The organization "aims to provide reliable and authoritative information about science and technology for the developing world" with their goal being "to help both individuals and organisations in developing countries make informed decisions about how science and technology can improve economic and social development." They have an interesting section of their website devoted to explaining to scientists and non-journalists how to work with the media and how to communicate their messages to reporters.

Two recent articles caught my interest immediately, "Explaining controversial issues to the media and the public" and "Reporting on controversies in science." I'm always interested in seeing how people are advising the public to convey their message, as well as how journalist are being advised on how to report those stories.

The first article on explaining controversies to the media provided several very good points which scientists on both sides of the Darwin debate would be well advised to heed:

In many cases, scientists can make it more difficult for the public or journalists to understand an issue clearly. They may speculate casually about the implications of preliminary findings that have not been fully examined. They may use jargon that proves impenetrable to the layperson.
I work with scientists all the time. And it is sometimes difficult to get them to remember that not everybody is an expert in evo-devo or paleontology. They have to craft their message to the level of the audience they are addressing, which, for people with PhDs, is sometimes not that easy.

Some additional points made by the author:

Ultimately, you are seeking to leave your audience with a clear understanding, neither exaggerating nor underplaying the controversy that surrounds the issue. You should be willing to acknowledge conflicts and to explain clearly why they exist, even if your own views put you firmly on one side of an argument.

You may also be asked to comment on the motivations of individuals who are involved in a controversial issue, because these can add 'colour' to a story. Be careful not to cause offence, and do not speculate. In many cases, opposing views in a controversy are honestly held, and the protagonists and their supporters will hardly welcome comments that cast doubt on their integrity, for instance by suggesting they have an ulterior motive for their views.

Remember that some degree of uncertainty exists in almost every area of science. Be prepared to explain how significant the evidence is and make sure you recognise when other scientists might credibly offer different interpretations of it. Make a clear distinction between evidence and the conclusions drawn from it. Even when the evidence is inconclusive, you should indicate where the weight of evidence and opinion lies, although there is a chance that a minority view may ultimately be proved correct. (emphasis mine)

Imagine if most of the reporting on the origins debate followed these same guidelines. All we have ever required of the media is accuracy and fairness. If reporters are going to quote three evolutionary biologists supporting Darwinian evolution, they also should try to quote scientists who are critics of Darwinism, letting them make their case in their own words and respond to any rebuttals. This is what is known as civil debate. Some reporters are better than others, and hopefully we can encourage more of them to be responsible.

The second article, "Reporting on controversies in science", also had some good advice.

Journalists are obliged to be inquisitive, sceptical and fair to all sides of the debate. They cannot be sure of being right, but they can try to be responsible.

But remember that mostly scientists will be telling you something that seems to be the case, at that moment, on the evidence of the latest research. They are unlikely to be lying ... But they may be mistaken, misled or just too fond of a theory to give it up. If in doubt, talk to a scientist from a competing research group. (again, emphasis is mine)

Distinguished scientists tend to be more confident, and more persuasive, than younger researchers; but they are, in some cases, just as likely to be wrong.

A reporter's job is to report the latest evidence, the latest twist in a debate.

Compare this to the advice given last year by Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet in "Undoing Darwin" in the Columbia Journalism Review. Mooney and Nesbit are upset that ID might ever get fair and balanced treatment by the media, when clearly there is no debate and Darwinian evolution is a fact (if not a downright law of nature in their point of view).
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.
Their idea of good science writing is to report that Darwinian evolution is a fact, and ID is not science. Any paper that doesn't do this consistently gets into trouble -- even those who do side with them, but somehow let things slip through the cracks, are taken to task.
At two elite national papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, the opinion pages sided heavily with evolution. But even there a false sense of scientific controversy was arguably abetted when The New York Times allowed Michael Behe, the prominent ID proponent, to write a full-length op-ed explaining why his is a "scientific" critique of evolution.
One might expect that Pravda adhere to party dictated guidelines like these when writing about communism. But when writing about science does a reporter have to report only what the AAAS dictates? Mooney and Nesbit think so.
Perhaps journalists should consider that, unlike other social controversies -- over abortion or gay marriage, for instance -- the evolution debate is not solely a matter of subjective morality or political opinion. Rather, a definitive standard has been set by the scientific community on the science of evolution, and can easily be used to evaluate competing claims. Scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have taken strong stances affirming that evolution is the bedrock of modern biology. In such a situation, journalistic coverage that helps fan the flames of a nonexistent scientific controversy (and misrepresents what's actually known) simply isn't appropriate.
News editors are advised to:
At the very least, newspaper editors should think twice about assigning reporters who are fresh to the evolution issue and allowing them to default to the typical strategy frame, carefully balancing "both sides" of the issue in order to file a story on time and get around sorting through the legitimacy of the competing claims.
At least when it comes to the opinion pages, Mooney and Nesbit are willing to ease up a little bit and actually let some opinions get published. But hey editors, don't let your sense of fairness get carried away!
When it comes to opinion pages, meanwhile, there's certainly more room for dissent because of the nature of the forum -- but that doesn't mean editorial-page editors can't act as responsible gatekeepers.
Maybe Mooney and Nesbit should familiarize themselves with the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Part of the preamble it states that "The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues." It doesn't say to present what another association deems is fair, or to report only one side of an issue.

If they want to be professional journalists then here are three points from the code of ethics that Mooney and Nesbit need to work on.

  • Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
  • Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.