Seeking accuracy before balance

Our Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from the World Conference of Science Journalists in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Escaping the balance trap

Impartiality is considered a central tenet of good journalism. In practise, this often means presenting two sides of a story to ensure balance. While this works in stories about politics, ‘balance’ in science reporting can misrepresent the extent of scientific agreement. Naomi Oreskes, an historian of science, gave an overview of her impressive work uncovering the fabrication of anthropogenic climate change controversy when scientific consensus was in fact very high. 

The ‘merchants of doubt’, as Oreskes labelled them in her 2010 book with Erik Conway, created the impression of scientific doubt through strategically exploiting editorial requirements for balance. These individuals created reports questioning human impacts on the environment to match the layout and thickness of genuine scientific reports, such that non-experts would not know the difference. A key strategy was to present propaganda to journalists and editors as the other side of the story, despite the lack of any real debate within the scientific community. TV programmes were monitored, and stations were pressured through intimidation to pull shows that did not include ‘balance’.

Many of the key individuals involved in fabricating this controversy were those who previously argued that there was scientific debate around the effects of tobacco. They successfully manipulated the media and the public in both cases by arguing that the evidence is not clear, that more data is needed, and that perhaps tobacco and climate change are actually good for us. Tobacco lobbyists reasoned that you can’t say smoking causes cancer, since you can’t point to one cancer and say that it was definitely caused by smoking. Similarly, it is hard to point to one climate-related event and say it was caused by climate change. Oreskes argued that what scientists can do is say that such events are a certain number of times more likely to happen due to climate change.

The motivation of the merchants of doubt was the protection of their financial interests in large industries. Oreskes noted that if industry had an interest in anti-vaccination, there would be a much greater demand for ‘balance’ in the scientific reporting of vaccinations too. As it is, those who are anti-vaccination are typically individuals without the strategy to target journalists and seek equal representation.

While the book was published almost ten years ago, many of these issues are pertinent today. Oreskes had advice for science writers grappling with the issue of impartiality. First, the concept of balance should be rejected in science reporting. The goal should be accuracy, not balance, as presenting two sides is misleading in many cases. It is perfectly reasonable, said Oreskes, to interview politicians, lawyers, think tanks or ethicists, so long as they are not included for balance in contrast to a scientist. The science element of the story should be as accurate as possible, and balance should be sought in other dimensions, such as a right-wing perspective on policy implications of climate change in contrast to a left-wing perspective.

Many scientists are uncomfortable talking to the media. Oreskes told the journalists in the room that their job is to get scientists to talk. The take-home message for scientists then, is to talk to the media, particularly if the news outlet is truly seeking accuracy, rather than pitting scientists against non-scientists. Journalists and scientists alike have a role to play in ensuring appropriate reporting. Moving beyond the balance trap has the potential to increase public confidence in science and allow for faster policy action on important scientific issues.

Ending the paralysis

Solutions journalism is a response to the sometimes overwhelming onslaught of negative news that greets us every morning. Many of us have had the experience of feeling completely helpless, or even indifferent, in the face of the biggest issues facing the world today. Solutions journalists are trying to change this. 

Traditional journalism is a watchdog, seeking to report and expose. Solutions journalism, explained Nina Fasciaux, is a guide dog, seeking to highlight responses to key problems. Climate change is one obvious topic that can lead to feelings of apathy or a lack of engagement, with news stories typically covering only the negative aspects. A solutions journalism approach to writing about climate change would go further and cover a response. Clearly there is no single solution to climate change, and Fasciaux suggested identifying one precise issue: rather than writing about climate change in a broad sense, a journalist might focus their story on water access, for example. 

It is key that solutions journalism pieces are rigorous and evidence-based. The solution should be a concrete example of replicable work in real communities, said Elizabeth McGowan. The example reported should have evidence of impact and effectiveness, with discussion of limitations or caveats. Solutions journalists hope presenting these insights will help others learn about solutions and empower them to act.

This approach not only has the potential to encourage reader action, it also offers a new way of storytelling. Taking the example of shootings in America, Fasciaux explained that writing about a solution would provide a richer story than the usual details of date, time and place. Solutions journalism is a tool for writers to bring a new angle to an old story; to tell a fuller version of the story. A bonus of this approach for editors is that it increases user engagement – pieces presenting solutions tend to have more readers, who stay on the page for longer, compared to pieces about problems. 

The Upside is a new series in the Guardian that takes a solutions journalism approach. Headlines including ‘Tree planting “has mind-blowing potential” to tackle climate crisis’, ‘From bleak to bustling: how one French town solved its high street crisis’ and ‘“A tidal wave of problems”: texting on the mental health frontline’ demonstrate the kinds of stories this type of journalism can tell.

Fasciaux argued that simply exposing problems and hoping for change is not enough. People need to hear about solutions in order to escape the dread and make positive decisions. Solutions journalism can increase feelings of hope and encourage action. As McGowan said, solutions journalism presents an opportunity to ‘end the paralysis’.

Respecting indigenous perspectives

Instances of scientists engaging with indigenous populations have historically not been positive. Scientists have both ignored and stolen the rich knowledge held by indigenous people and studied communities as objects of curiosity, explained Véronique Morin.

Colonial research methods have negatively impacted relations between indigenous people and scientific researchers, leading to feelings of distrust. Suzy Basile described the major misstep taken by many researchers of disappearing with data and never returning with information or results for the community. Scientific approaches, including this failure to share results, have not aligned with the values and priorities of indigenous populations. Nancy Crépeau explained that indigenous people typically want useful research with implementation possibilities. Reciprocity is therefore important. Researchers have also failed to seek appropriate permissions from within the community – official bodies have not been asked before research has commenced.

This history of poor practices has led to the recent emergence of guidelines for scientists who intend to engage with indigenous populations. These guidelines, including a toolbox of research principles, have been created in a Canadian context. Basile described a backlash from researchers who initially asked why rules were being imposed on them. It is becoming more accepted in Canada that there are guidelines to follow, but a major challenge is that researchers from Europe are not given the same information: they turn up expecting to be able to conduct whatever research they want.

Personal stories from the indigenous speakers demonstrated the poor treatment of indigenous people by scientists and wider structures. Basile recalled finding a book about the First Nations with photographs of her family in it. She took it home and none of her family knew they were in the book. This was the turning point when Basile knew there needed to be change. For Crépeau, this moment came when she was discouraged from completing her teacher training in an indigenous community, where she intended to later teach, because the schools were considered poor quality. Crépeau decided to pursue further studies in order to change structures that lead to these educational inequalities. Inga Hansen, from Greenland, had similarly grown up not realising she was colonised, but looking back felt that she had been indoctrinated to become more Danish.

Morin explained that the pressure to publish in science can be detrimental to research with indigenous populations. Protocols and consultations take time, so researchers attempt to bypass them. There is also a perception among scientists that indigenous people have no knowledge about science and no valid questions to explore. This, said Morin, is a facet of racism.

Science journalists have great power to influence the public’s understanding, according to Crépeau, playing an important role in improving relations between scientists and indigenous people. Basile made the case for collaborations between journalists and indigenous communities; building partnerships to ensure the indigenous perspective is heard and respected. Scientists too should collaborate with indigenous people, recognising the knowledge, values and priorities of these communities.

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