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Blinded Me with Balance: How the US Media Get Science Coverage Wrong (& How They Can Get It Right) | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Blinded Me with Balance: How the US Media Get Science Coverage Wrong (& How They Can Get It Right)

Fox on Climate Change

Fox New coverage of the climate change debate. (screen grab)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is called “ Don’t Know Much About History .” The subhed is: “The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.” Guess what it’s about…

Here are the Alter-reviews:

1) The Alvin Brothers

2) CSN and CSNYY

3) Loudon Wainwright and David Bromberg

4) “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Nutty Professor”

5) New Jewish history and biography from Indiana University Press

1) Being a serious fan of the Blasters, I went to see the Alvin Brothers, Phil and Dave, promote their first studio album in thirty years, "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy." The brothers have obviously not always gotten along so great, but two years ago when Phil was touring in Spain, he went to a local hospital for an infection from an abscessed tooth. Dave was informed that he was dead, and then informed that irreversible brain damage had caused his throat to swell virtually closed, his heart stopped and his vital signs flat-lined.

Anyway, Phil is somehow fine now—he loves his Spanish doctor--and the experience inspired both men to suck it up and start recording and touring together again. At the City Winery show, Dave did most of the talking, but was (to me, anyway) surprisingly deferential to Phil. Repeatedly he referred to the Blasters as Phil’s band, in which he briefly played and sang, (even though he wrote almost all their great material). True, Phil has a great voice—his version of “Please, Please, Please” delivered on its nearly impossible promise, but Dave is the genius. Highlights of the show included “Border Radio” and Leiber and Stoller’s “One Bad Stud” and of course, the instant classic “What’s Up With Your Brother,” but not, I say disappointedly, “American Music.” They were backed up by one of Dave’s bands. I’ve not gotten the cd yet but it can’t be anything but totally excellent. And if you want to hear more of their story, check out the interview they did with Terry Gross and listen to the new cd, upon which Phil sounds really terrific, though when you load it into iTunes, it comes up as just “Dave Alvin.”

2) Rhino’s CSNY 74 box set is one of the two big historical items of summer. (The other one is the complete 1971 Allman Brothers Fillmore shows.) I’m not saying that any cd package could be worth this wait—forty years is an awfully long time—but it is beautifully packaged and incredibly rich, including in newish material that has even bypassed most of the best-circulated bootlets. The audio is a pristine sounding 40 song set, divided between acoustic and electric sets and the video has 8 performances on it. I got the bluray audio, which sounds incredible, especially given the circumstances of the recording. And the 188 page booklet is well-written as well and generous, in terms of data and and photos, well beyond the call of duty. Fourteen year old yours truly bought tickets to the 77,000 person Roosevelt Raceway show with the Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell that September but I could not find a ride and so I had to sell them. Perhaps that was ok, since it ended up being a 12-hour show and began 3 hours early. But on these recordings, the band is terrific despite the fact that they could hardly speak to one another and were constantly worried about getting ripped off. (It was perhaps the first outdoor stadium tour—at least they say it was.) The guitar work of Stephen and Neil especially is one of the under-rated pleasures of a decidedly over-written era. (I guess coke overconsumption does not interfere with great guitar work.) It’s really superior in every way to 4 Way Street—every way except for the fact that it took four damn decades to arrive.

In celebration of the set, but also because they like to, CSN (minus Y) played three nights at the Beacon recently. I caught the opening show, which was surprisingly titled toward new material. Much of it was first-rate, though I find it difficult to enjoy music the first time I hear it. Stills’ guitar was just as solid as ever, backed up by Shane Fontayne, who has calmed down quite a bit since he played with Bruce, thankfully. The harmonies were (just about) as nice and vibes actually better than ever. The music, of course, is timeless (even without Y). These guys are a really good argument for getting old—though not such a good one for being young and famous and rich. Oh and they’re good sports too. Check out this Jimmy Fallon appearance if you’ve not already.

3) I saw two old reliables at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett David Bromberg and Loudon Wainwright, well, not together. Loudon’s show was whatever the WASPish word is for “mispucha” performance featuring Martha Wainwright and Lucy and Suzzy Roche. Loudon is just an amazing fellow for the way he has created this extended family and turned it into art and gotten everybody to go along, despite well, quite a few actions and undertakings that would have daunted—or perhaps even torn lesser families asunder. Everybody sounded great, especially Suzzy, upon whom I have a crush now going on about 36 years. Loudon looks distinguished with a white beard and his new stuff sounds like his old stuff, which is to say, smart and funny. The annual appearance in Amagansett gives the rest of us a chance to be glad we have our families and not his—albeit without the talent. You can hear him singing about his dog, here. The new album Haven't Got The Blues (Yet) will arrive in September

And since returning to performing live after 22 (or so) of retirement, David Bromberg and his band continue to offer a continuing master class in musical versitility, craftmanship, showmanship and good fun. It was a thrill to be so close to the stage at the Talkhouse and watch the man’s fingers move up and down those frets with equal parts imagination and self-discipline. Everyone in the band is terrific and if they’re not exactly tight, they make up for it in spades with chops and good humor. The material, as always, was first rate and Bromberg gets funnier as he gets older with that deadpan delivery and the now properly aged white blues voice. Go see these guys if you get the chance. Trust me. And the newish, but rather oldish sounding sort of ur-David Bromberg album is called “Only Slightly Mad,” if that’s as close as you can get. More here

4) On the merchandise front, there’s a brand new Criterion collection bluray/dvd package of “A Hard Day’s Night.” I shouldn’t really have to say more. It’s funny, sure, and creative and fun as hell. Andrew Sarris called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” In the documentary, Roger Ebert, who says he’s seen the movie 25 times, calls it “essentially orgasmic” today and compares it to “Casablanca” as well as Welles’ masterpiece. Well, OK. Most interestingly, from a historical viewpoint, I think the boys were already approaching, perhaps had already approached their melodic (through certainly not creative) peak with “All My Lovin’,” “Can’t ` Love,” “If I Fell, and especially, “I Should Have Known Better,”—an absolutely perfect song. Most people don’t think this happened until much later, but the proof is here. And now it’s got a gorgeous new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with three audio options—a monaural soundtrack as well as newly created stereo and 5.1 surround mixes supervised by sound producer Giles Martin at Abbey Road Studios—presented in uncompressed monaural, uncompressed stereo, and DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray. I learned a lot from the “making of” documentary – “You Can’t Do That”: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a 1994 documentary by producer Walter Shenson including an outtake performance by the Beatles--which demonstrates, to an amazing degree, the casualness of the Beatles’ collective genius; one of the greatest of great things to happen in the twentieth century, or at least in my lifetime. [Did you know John and Paul wrote the title song pretty much to order and did so overnight because they needed a title song set to that title? I think they could have called it “You Can’t Do that” which was the song they cut from the band’s performances and was made available for the first time in this terrific documentary] Were I more a religious (and less grammatical) person, I would call them a miracle. (Funnily, Phil Collins compares it to the Old Testament.)

Plus that, you get all this:

– Audio commentary featuring cast and crew (dual-format only)

 In Their Own Voices, a new piece combining 1964 interviews with the Beatles with behind-the-scenes footage and photos

– Things They Said Today, a 2002 documentary about the film featuring Lester, music producer George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (dual-format only)

– Picturewise, a new piece about Lester’s early work, featuring a new audio interview with the director (dual-format only)

– The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), Lester’s Oscar-nominated short (dual-format only)

– Anatomy of a Style, a new piece on Lester’s methods (dual-format only)

– New interview with author Mark Lewisohn (dual-format only)

– PLUS: An essay by critic Howard Hampton and excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester (dual-format only)

And being a longtime Francophile, I’m not ashamed to say that Jerry Lewis’s masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor” (1963), is one of my all-timers. The new Blu-ray/DVD combo, the box includes excerpts from the “Nutty Professor” script (written by Mr. Lewis and Bill Richmond); a hardcover selection of “Nutty Professor” storyboards; a facsimile of “Instruction Book for Being a Person,” the slim volume Mr. Lewis wrote, had bound and distributed to the movie’s cast and crew; a CD of 12 “phony phone calls” made by Mr. Lewis between 1959 and 1972; DVDs of “Cinderfella” (1960), a Lewis vehicle directed by Frank Tashlin but revised in the editing by its star; and the 1962 film “The Errand Boy”. So there’s that. I saw Jerry speak last year at the 92nd Street Y. It was one of the weirdest nights of my life. But the news was that he repeatedly denied that he was playing Dean in TNP, but like so much of what he said that night, it was nonsense.

5) I’ve been doing a lot of research in Jewish history of late and it leads me to want to write a short thank-you note to Indiana University Press, which, as scholars of the topic are well aware, punches way above its weight—or the weight of almost any other press in this category. I’ve had the occasion to spend some time with three recent publications of unique and significant value in recent weeks. They are The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan by Mel Scult, an emeritus professor at Brooklyn College, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence by my good friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held and In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine by Jeffrey Veidlinger, who teaches history and literature at the University of Michigan. Scult has already written a biography of Kaplan and so is able to combine his history with an inquiry into the meaning and (continueing relevance of his thought; though, I would argue that defines the beliefs of most American Jews, though precious few are aware of this. Rabbi Held’s book is strictly a theological examination of Heschel’s thought and a demanding one at that. It will no doubt reward the careful reading it requires. Heschel has become a kind of popular symbol of Jewish political liberalism in the sixties but not only is this misleading as matter of history, it does not begin to do justice to the religious and theological context out of which this action—“praying with his feet” as he called it—arose. Held does that and much more. I’ve not had time to delve into Veidlinger’s book yet, but its reviews have been superlative.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Blinded Me with Balance: How the U.S. Media Gets Science Coverage Wrong (& How It Can Get It Right)
by Reed Richardson

The press, as a rule, has never been an institution that spends a lot of time looking inward. Deeper-level questions about how it covers an issue or a topic rarely rise to the level where they’re allowed outweigh the exigencies of today’s deadlines and headlines. Journalism is the so-called first draft of history, after all, with heavy emphasis on the word “draft.” And such a granular, ephemeral emphasis on the here and now is ill-suited to noticing larger, long-gestating changes in a story or narrative and incorporating those changes into one’s reporting.

All this is to say that what the BBC has undertaken in the past few years is quite incredible. For a global news organization to publicly admit that its coverage of a critical news topic was sub-standard is remarkable in its own right. But then for it to devote exceedingly precious resources—both time and money—to better understand the subject matter and how it can be covered more accurately is, well, almost unheard of. (That the BBC is a publicly-funded news trust rather than a subsidiary of a large profit-driven multinational no doubt allows it to engage in this kind of editorial self-examination, but I digress.)

This past week, the BBC released the final installment of its multi-year review, the focus of which primarily centered on how well the network fulfilled its mission of impartially covering science. After years of inquiry, which included commissioning an independent analysis of its science coverage by academics and hosting numerous in-house science tutorials for 200 of its senior staff, the BBC came to grips with reality. In doing so, it belatedly joins what was already a widespread acceptance of climate change in the European media . Which is why the BBC’s common-sense conclusions should be required reading in newsrooms across the U.S.:

“[I]mpartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, which may result in a ‘false balance’. More crucially it depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given. In this respect, editorial decisions should be guided by where the scientific consensus might be found on any given topic, if it can in fact be determined. […]

“This does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinised. The BBC has a duty to reflect the weight of scientific agreement but it should also reflect the existence of critical views appropriately. Audiences should be able to understand from the context and clarity of the BBC’s output what weight to give to critical voices.”

These conclusions, the BBC goes on to note, are of particular importance when covering climate change and evolution, where there exists overwhelming scientific agreement on the basic facts. Going forward, BBC says that it will take care to give “due weight” to scientific theories without being bound to offer an equal counterpoint where none is merited. Imagine that, a media organization thinking first and foremost about the mission of informing readers rather than maintaining a contrived veneer of political neutrality.

It’s just the kind of fresh thinking the media could use here in the U.S. Here, sadly, TV news networks are still actively trolling for climate deniers to put on the air. As Media Matters documented two weeks ago, a clumsy editor at CNBC accidentally outed that network’s attempts at providing a friendly platform for climate-change-is-a-hoax shtick . This disregard for the facts isn’t much of a surprise, however, as CNBC routinely gives climate change deniers a majority of airtime on the issue.

Over at Fox News—to no one’s surprise—newsroom leadership has long taken a dim view of the scientific consensus on climate change and insists on giving “critics” equal—if not more—coverage. Or, as then Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon put it in afrantic 2010 email memo to his staff:

“…we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.” [emphasis in original]

There is a kind of audacious, Orwellian purity to Sammon’s warning: “it is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as fact.” But it fits perfectly with a cable network whose ultimate purpose isn’t to present facts to its viewers so much as it is to package an alternate reality for them. To assert there is a climate change “debate,” as Sammon put it, isn’t just a feature of Fox News, though. It’s standard practice among a wide swath of the establishment media that seeks intellectual shelter in equivocating, on-the-other-hand coverage. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Fox News’ climate change coverage was misleading 72% of the time, but also that CNN’s was too nearly one-third of the time. MSNBC’s coverage, by contrast, was rated as accurate by the UCS nearly all of the time. And lest you think it’s just TV news doing this, think again. Major newspapers and wire services do it too.

Scientists have certainly noticed the media’s propensity for false balance. In anaggregating survey of nearly 400 climate scientists , published in 2010 by German scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, they said journalists reach out to a scientist claiming climate change is a hoax almost as often as they contact a scientist claiming climate change is real and an impending disaster. (On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being very likely contacted, the “hoax” source averaged a 4.9, while the median score for the “real, disaster” source was 5.6. See Q’s: 58 & 59.) This, despite the fact that the same survey found zero climate scientists said climate change was “not at all” happening and less than two percent said climate change was “not at all” the result of man-made causes (Q’s: 20 & 21).

This particular survey by Bray and von Storch offers a window into the polarized state of scientific debate in the media. That’s because it has become something of a touchstone for climate deniers, who have tried to conflate its findings of specific disagreements in the scientific community on the mechanisms and impacts of man-made climate change with the idea that no consensus exists on the broader question of anthropogenic climate change. Two major surveys of climate scientists put the consensus figure at97% , which is the number NASA endorses as well. The latest UN IPCC report from last fall varies a tiny bit from this, using a 95% confidence number.

Nevertheless, a pair of ‘consensus truthers’ was given ample room on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page recently to try to undermine the idea of climate change by specifically citing the Bray and von Storch survey as proof that the 97% consensus is a “myth.” Not surprisingly, the op-ed’s co-authors—one of whom is president of the oil and gas-industry funded Heartland Institute—failed to mention the most salient findings I cited above. And notably, two weeks after that column was published, Dennis Bray himself published a rebuttal post on the Klimazwiebel blog. In it, he called out theJournal op-ed’s claims about his survey as “inaccurate if not outright false” and lamented that his work had been co-opted for partisan purposes and circulated around the world as proving something that it doesn’t.

As the old Mark Twain adage goes, though, Bray’s truth on his blog will never catch up to the jet-fueled distortions of climate deniers in the mainstream media. Even if they somehow did, numerous studies have found that attempts at debunking myths are, in fact, counterproductive; they produce a ‘backfire effect’ that only serves to strengthen belief in the myth. For evidence of how stubbornly embedded phony scientific beliefs can become, one need only look to the climate skeptics’ conference being held at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas this week. Sponsored by—looky here—the Heartland Institute, the conference’s keynote speaker on Tuesday was Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who, in his speech, proceeded to run through a whole host of easily disproven conspiracies about global warming, acid rain, and water fluoridation. Rohrabacher, I might point out, sits on the House Science Committee.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has noted that once a scientific issue gets interwoven with politics, the former often gets subsumed by the latter. Or, as he explained at The Upshot after the Hobby Lobby case: “identity often trumps the facts.” The media’s role in at the intersection of science and policy has been a frequent point of inquiry for Nyhan, and his 2010 study of the myths propagated during the Clinton and Obama health care reform debates offers up very similar conclusions to the BBC survey:

“[U]ntil the media stops giving so much attention to misinformers, elites on both sides will often succeed in creating misperceptions, especially among sympathetic partisans. And once such beliefs take hold, few good options exist to counter them—correcting misperceptions is simply too difficult.”

Some American news sites are catching on to this. The Los Angeles Times, for example, took a small, but important step last fall when it declared it would no longer run climate change denial letters to the editor . Paul Thornton, the Times’ letters editor, explained his decision as a matter of journalistic integrity: “I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page…saying "there's no sign humans have caused climate change" is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Similarly, the PhD chemist Nathan Allen, who is the moderator of Reddit’s popular/r/science discussion board chose to ban climate change denying commenters recently. Although controversial, removing what, in the end, amounted to just a handful of people who had been mostly lobbing insults made a huge difference. Where before discussions were routinely hijacked by paranoid, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, now there is serious, substantive debate about the facts of climate change and other scientific topics. The experience left Allen convinced more can be done and, in a column for Grist last December, he issued a challenge to the press: “[I]f a half-dozen volunteers can keep a page with more than 4 million users from being a microphone for the antiscientific, is it too much to ask for newspapers to police their own editorial pages as proficiently?”

The simple answer should be “no.” After all, nonpartisan media watchdogs cheered theTimes decision as a long overdue re-assertion of the primacy of facts as the basis for all journalism, whether it’s in the news or opinion pages. Nevertheless, a misguided sense of objectivity still colors much of the American media’s news judgment, which is likely who no other major newspaper has followed suit. And climate skeptics, aided by the usual suspects in the media, have been quick to exploit the media’s timidity and claim their dissenting views are being unfairly suppressed.

The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. And that’s the problem. By essentially leveling the ground for climate deniers, the press neutralizes the scientific consensus by converting the discussion into one of politics and beliefs. This is more comfortable, familiar terrain for the press because it allows it to avoid value judgments about the validity of each side’s arguments. But when every fact can be grounds for a debate, then there really are no facts anymore. In such an environment, it’s little surprise then, that compromise is impossible and nothing much gets done in Washington anymore either.

Choosing to do nothing about climate change is, of course, still a choice, just as choosing not to acknowledge the scientific consensus about climate change is one as well. In the face of such a fundamental global threat, however, both choices are increasingly untenable. The BBC was wise to recognize how its flawed editorial decisions were playing into this calculus and that it could do better by its global audience. As watchdog of the biggest greenhouse gas-producing nation in our planet’s history, the American media bears an even larger burden in how it covers climate change. But if it continues to forsake its responsibility to the truth, the notion that ours is a free press equal to (or better than) the rest of the world’s media will just be yet another tragic case of false balance.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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