ONE of the most enthralling science stories of this year has been the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, with its eerie pictures of arid landscapes and of an ancient dried-up streambed.
But where was the balance in these reports?
Why didn’t we hear from the Flat Earth Society on why the whole thing was just an elaborate hoax? Or from astrologers warning of the catastrophic effects such interplanetary exploration might have on the love lives of Librans?
OK, I made that last one up but, when it comes to reporting science, some of my colleagues in the media are, to say the least, selective about which stories require the inclusion of dissenting voices and which do not.
Astronomers are rarely challenged. The findings of evolutionary biologists don’t generally have to contend with creationist arguments about our descent from Adam and Eve. Scientists announcing a “cancer breakthrough” tend to receive a rapturous and uncritical reception.
But the media response can be quite different when the subject is climate change or — as last week’s report on the ABC television program Media Watch made clear — vaccination.
In August this year, WIN TV in Wollongong reported on a measles outbreak in south-western Sydney, including an interview with a doctor who recommended vaccination against the disease.
Fine, you might think, but the reporter followed that advice with: “There remains heated discussion about possible links between the jab and the development of autism.”
Hmm. Not among people with even the vaguest understanding of science, there doesn’t.
But that didn’t stop WIN from trotting out Meryl Dorey, whose spectacularly misnamed Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) is indefatigable in its battle against universal immunisation.
“All vaccinations in the medical literature have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine”, opined Ms Dorey, who was identified by the program as representing “choice groups”.
WIN did not respond to Media Watch’s questions about why it chose to include the AVN’s misleading claims about vaccines in a story about a measles outbreak, but the program did obtain a copy of a letter the station wrote in response to a viewer complaint.
The story was “accurate, fair and balanced”, the letter said.
A doctor provided the opinion that everybody should be immunised, while Ms Dorey presented “the other side of the story”, urging parents not to panic and to become informed about “the diseases children are vaccinated against, and about the vaccines themselves”.
“Our story presented the medical and the choice group view”, the letter went on.
As Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes testily concluded: “Medical practitioners/choice groups. One opinion as valid as the other. It’s a classic example of what many — especially despairing scientists — call ‘false balance’ in the media.”
Balance … it sounds like a good thing, and generally, of course, it is. But too often this noble concept is used to justify providing a platform to all manner of obsessive cranks with a barrow to push.
I have had, sometimes heated, discussions with other journalists reluctant to acknowledge that responsible and truthful reporting of scientific issues requires them to make a judgement about whose opinions are actually worth repeating.
The ABC editorial policies, revised last year, got it right when they declared one of the hallmarks of impartiality was “a balance that follows the weight of the evidence”.
Journalists, in other words, are not obliged to give a voice to the Flat Earth Society.
Something WIN TV would do well to take note of.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 8 October 2012