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He Says/She Says' Just Doesn't Work for Science

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Ten years after the last polarised debate about GM, the coverage of two high-profile resignations from a committee of the Food Standards Agency set up to run a new national dialogue on the issue suggests we may be in for an unedifying re-run. 

Producers on BBC Radio 4's You and Yours and BBC1's Breakfast contacted the Science Media Centre looking for 'pro' and 'anti' GM guests. And when the science editor on Radio 4's Today went to Norwich to cover the announcement of a rare field trial of GM potatoes, producers rushed to book an anti-GM campaigner to 'balance' the package. The resulting item gave more time to a Friends of the Earth spokesperson than the scientist describing the new work.


If I was to single out one main complaint about the media from the scientific community it would be that journalists tend to be too 'balanced' - in other words, they try to give roughly equal time to opposing viewpoints even when the weight of evidence lies strongly on one side. 

Like 'objectivity', the concept of 'balance' is one of journalism's fundamental rules. Some suggest it is rooted in our system of parliamentary democracy and adversarial politics and works well for politics - giving equal treatment to the main political parties.

The Columbia Journalism Review summarised it rather crudely in a piece about media coverage of US elections: "The candidate makes a statement. You write it down, then you call the other side for a response. Tell us what he said, then tell us what she said, and you're covered aren't you?"

But a concept of balance that may work in politics is problematic for science - where findings must be replicated time and time again to eventually reveal where the weight of evidence lies. Or as US science writer Chris Mooney puts it: "The journalistic norm of balance has no corollary in the world of science ... where consensus builds on repeated testing and re-testing of an idea."

The subject has become a hot potato (excuse the pun) in recent years, especially in areas of science that have become controversial - like the safety of the MMR vaccine, climate change and creationism, as well as GM. On all these subjects, the weight of evidence stacked on one side is significant - but I only know that because I work in science. You would be hard pressed to find out from the media.

The obsession with balance had particularly devastating consequences in the case of MMR, when the claims of one maverick doctor about a link between MMR and autism led to a ten-year crisis of confidence in a very safe vaccine. Many argue that it is not Andrew Wakefield but the media which bears responsibility for the MMR scare, because of its insistence on 'balancing' every scientific expert with a Wakefield supporter. 

For me, one of the most damning indictments of the media's failure to inform the debate on this key public health story came in a 2003 Economic and Social Research Council survey in the wake of the MMR feeding frenzy. It showed that over two-thirds of the British public believed that medical science was divided on the safety of the vaccine - when in fact there was no such division. Not even Andrew Wakefield claimed that half the medical establishment was on his side. He didn't need to: the media had perpetrated that myth through the pursuit of balance.

There is also a wider question here about the quality of journalism. Media commentator Jay Rosen has accused the media of substituting what he calls 'he says/she says' journalism for proper truth-telling journalism. Rosen suggests that, by portraying the pro and anti side of contested claims, journalists are abdicating their responsibility to find out who is telling the truth. 

Given the ever-growing pressures on reporters today, sorting out which competing claim is closest to the truth takes background research that few have time for. This has been clear in the recent GM debates, where the anti-GM campaigners have made considerably more scientific claims than the plant scientists themselves. Yet, without an attempt by journalists to help us work out which are true (and both of them can't be!), the public is simply left to hazard a guess.

In their defence, journalists tell me that objectivity requires them to 'not take sides', but I think that's a different point. I'm not a fan of 'attached journalism' and I am not asking any journalist to put the case for these areas of science. 

I am merely saying that in the 'inform' bit of the Reithian trinity of 'inform, educate and entertain' the media has a responsibility for trying to get us closer to the truth, or, if not, then at least to make sure we know where the weight of evidence lies.

The other defence of 'balance' in reporting is what one commentator rather neatly called "regression toward a phoney mean". This is the idea that if the media gives us the two polarised sides of an argument we will conclude that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Again, this concept could not be further from the scientific approach and appears to me to be something of an abdication of the reporter's responsibility to find the truth. 

That said, I suspect the other defence of 'balance' is that it is 'entertaining'. Most producers don't bother to hide their utter disdain when I suggest that having two scientists who look like they may agree would make for an equally entertaining debate. But I mean it. Anyone who reads Fred Pearce's brilliant new book on the UEA (University of East Anglia) emails can testify that the really interesting disputes about the 'Hockey Stick' and other climate science controversies were amongst mainstream scientists themselves, not between scientists and the sceptics.

One of the reasons none of us even knew those disputes had been raging in scientific literature and conferences for the past ten years is that every time a new piece of climate research was published in a journal news editors demanded that the lead author be 'balanced' with a sceptic. Listening to these interviews makes me weep. Locked into this 'we must get both sides' interview format, the scientist who is ready to explain all the caveats and uncertainties in his own study suddenly retreats to a defence of the overall scientific consensus on climate change - a debate we have all heard a hundred times before.

And before you start shouting 'censorship', can I make clear that I do distinguish between a desire for evidence to be accurately represented and the exclusion of legitimate voices from a debate? I am absolutely not arguing that anti-GM groups or climate sceptics should not be given a voice by the media. 


If I were to posit any solution to this problem, I would suggest looking to the specialist science journalists. If there is a group of people who dislike the whole concept of 'balance' more than scientists, it's probably science journalists - as they are frequently victims of their own editors' demands for it. These specialist reporters have the skills and background to brief presenters, editors and producers on the issues and to ensure that, where experts are making conflicting scientific claims, there is at an attempt to tease and out the false claims and distortions. So, not so unlike political reporting after all!