The scientist’s job is to discover truth about the natural world, and the journalist’s is to report the world’s events accurately. Why are these two professions so often at odds? Chris Mooney discusses how journalism fails science in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review. If you applauded Jon Stewart’s plea to “stop hurting America,” Mooney’s analysis will strike a chord; the he-said-she-said approach to truth fails in all kinds of venues.
Mooney’s discussion has a compelling opening:
On May 22, 2003, the Los Angeles Times printed a front-page story by Scott Gold, its respected Houston bureau chief, about the passage of a law in Texas requiring abortion doctors to warn women that the procedure might cause breast cancer. Virtually no mainstream scientist believes that the so-called ABC link actually exists ó only anti-abortion activists do. Accordingly, Goldís article noted right off the bat that the American Cancer Society discounts the ìalleged linkî and that anti-abortionists have pushed for ìso-called counselingî laws only after failing in their attempts to have abortion banned. Gold also reported that the National Cancer Institute had convened ìmore than a hundred of the worldís expertsî to assess the ABC theory, which they rejected. In comparison to these scientists, Gold noted, the author of the Texas counseling bill ó who called the ABC issue ìstill disputedî ó had ìa professional background in property management.î
Goldís piece was hard-hitting but accurate. The scientific consensus is quite firm that abortion does not cause breast cancer. If reporters want to take science and its conclusions seriously, their reporting should reflect this reality ó no matter what anti-abortionists say.
But what happened next illustrates one reason journalists have such a hard time calling it like they see it on science issues. In an internal memo exposed by the Web site LAobserved.com, the Timesís editor, John Carroll, singled out Goldís story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias.