This post is written by a special guest – Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at Science Online 2010. I was delighted when Ivan accepted my invitation to follow up a recent Twitter exchange with a guest-post, and shocked that he even turned down my generous honorarium of some magic beans. Here, he expounds on the tricky issues of journalistic balance and how journalists can choose their sources to avoid “he-said-she-said” journalism. Over to him:
The other day, a tweet by Maggie Koerth-Baker, a freelance science journalist in Minneapolis, caught my eye. In it, she bemoaned the fact that editors and producers often encourage their reporters to go find an “opposing viewpoint” to make a story balanced. She said her journalism school professors — she graduated in 2004 — always told her the same thing.
That troubled me.
I’ve been teaching medical journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Programsince 2002, and I taught a similar course at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism for three years. As I told Maggie and the othershaving the conversation on Twitter, I never tell my students to get “opposing viewpoint” but to get outside perspective — one that may agree with the study or the main idea being put forward by a source.
It’s easy to see why opposing viewpoints often rule the day. People like tension, and good journalists like skeptics. People who feel strongly about something are often media-savvy. They know how to give soundbites. They’re often telegenic — think Jenny McCarthy.
But I don’t have to tell you how this can lead to false balance. Others have written convincingly on this before, notably my NYU colleague Jay Rosen. In science and health reporting, you can end up with this.
Clearly, if the only sources you can find to “oppose” a study’s findings are from a scientific fringe, the best “opposing” viewpoint may be one that agrees!
Studying the way an animal moves by looking at its ears might seem like a poorly thought-out strategy. After all, short of watching it directly, most biologists would choose to look at more obvious traits like tracks, or limb bones.
But while an animal’s limbs may drive it forward, its inner ear makes sure that it doesn’t immediately fall over. By controlling balance, it plays a key role in movement, and its relative size can tell us about how agile an animal is.
When we walk, the image that forms on our retinas changes quite considerably. But no matter how fast or erratically we move, our view of the world neither jerks nor judders. It’s all stable images and smooth transitions, and the inner ear plays a large role in that.
In the inner ear, three semicircular canals control our balance by acting like small gyroscopes. The canals are bony, fluid-filled tubes arranged at right angles to each other and send information to the brain about the body’s orientation.
When the body moves, so does the fluid and this sloshing is sensed by hairs in the canals and relayed to the brain. The muscles of the neck and eye tense reflexively in response to these signals, and these help to stabilise our view of the world.
In humans, the inner ear doesn’t really have to work too hard – we’re limited to moving on the ground, and not very quickly at that. It’s a whole different story for a fast and agile animal like a bat, twisting and turning in three-dimensional airspace while avoiding obstacles and predators.