In the science world, if there is an overwhelming complaint about the media, it is that journalists tend to be too “balanced”–in other words, they give roughly 50-50 time to opposing viewpoints even when one side lacks credibility, as in the creationism-evolution battle.
In 2004 in Columbia Journalism Review, I did a major article critiquing this problem in science coverage–an article that I guess a lot of people read and liked, since it is still mentioned to me regularly. Recently, in fact, John Fleck emailed to ask why it wasn’t available online–and I decided to do something about that.
So here it is, “Blinded by Science,” a kind of classic critique of “phony balance” in science coverage:
BLINDED BY SCIENCE: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality
Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec2004, Vol. 43, Issue 4
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 — only anti-abortion activists do. Accordingly, Gold’s article noted right off the bat that the American Cancer Society discounts the “alleged link” and that anti-abortionists have pushed for “so-called counseling” laws only after failing in their attempts to have abortion banned. Gold also reported that the National Cancer Institute had convened “more than a hundred of the world’s experts” to assess the ABC theory, which they rejected. In comparison to these scientists, Gold noted, the author of the Texas counseling bill — who called the ABC issue “still disputed” — had “a professional background in property management.”
Gold’s 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 — no matter what antiabortionists say.
But what happened next illustrates one reason journalists have such a hard time calling it like they see it on science issues. Read More
Born and raised in Suffern, NY, pretty much everyone I knew was touched somehow by breast cancer. If it didn’t affect you personally, either your friend or aunt or mother or sister or grandmother seemed to be struggling with the disease. There was the routine of chemotherapy, hair loss, mastectomy, and on… it almost seemed as common as dealing with the removal of wisdom teeth. Just take a look at the incidence in Rockland County over 4 years (click here for the expanded list):
Later in Maine, the wife of a professor in my department was diagnosed with the same condition. Many peers had not encountered breast cancer personally until then and I realized my county was unusual. I also learned the couple coincidentally used to live on the street where I grew up.
So what’s going on in Rockland? Some local doctors wonder about environmental toxins and others suggest that the particular genetic make-up of residents may make the population more susceptible than average. Speculation abounds, but there are no answers.
This afternoon I’m concerned about yet another friend having a biopsy. Meanwhile CNN reports on the troubling new trend of younger women getting the disease. The incidence is still quite low, but we ought to be paying close attention. As National Breast Cancer Awareness month draws to a close, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates there were 192,370 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women and 1,910 in men last year in the United States. Rates in this country are among the highest in the world. (Statistics are available to download here).