Is shoddy environmental journalism better than no journalism at all?

24 November 2012

I recently had cause to remonstrate with a journalist regarding an article which, in my opinion, served more to perpetuate incorrect perceptions rather than incisively expose some worrying failings.  Additionally, the article created the impression that this was a scientific debate was between equals, whereas nothing could have been further from the truth.

This incident brought to mind the recent challenge to the reputation of a Japanese recipient of a Nobel prize, made by a charlatan who claimed to have pre-empted some of the findings.  Most regrettably, shoddy journalism by several newspapers failed to verify the bona fides of the challenger, leading to an incorrect perception about the actual winner being created.  As we all know, perceptions are everything and much damage was done to the good name of the scientist involved before someone did some investigative digging.   Eventually the truth came out, exposing the claims as completed unfounded, lacking any published work, a fictitious research affiliation and no contactable co-researchers.  This speaks volumes about the level of ineptitude of the journalists – and their editors – who grasped at this story, ostensibly just to get some ‘column inches’.

Journalists need to take the time and the trouble to exhaustively check their stories – more to the point the ‘stories’ told to them.  It’s relatively easy to check if someone is indeed a reputable scientist – most countries have professional registration systems for the various scientific disciplines.  Simply having a Bachelor of Science qualification does not, ipso facto, classify someone as a scientist – this is just a learners license on which to base a science career (and there are plenty of people out there who call themselves specialists or scientists, with impunity – the arena of wetland science has been a particular growth area for non-professionals).  If someone makes claims about their scientific work, there should be publications that can be scrutinized – especially if large sums of research funds  have been involved.  Any credible scientist exposes their work openly through the medium of peer-reviewed publication.  If their claims are apparently hidden in some vague internal reporting system then the journalist should smell a very large rat.  Moreover, they should enjoy peer recognition as a experienced professional in this or that area of science.

The book Flat Earth News (Davies, Chatto and Windus, 2008) exposed some shocking shennanigans about the world of media reporting and the general  lack of rigor in modern journalism. I would, however, like to believe that there are still some dedicated environmental journalists out there who are prepared to burn the candle at both ends, check stories and speak to other knowledgeable specialists – after first verifying that they are indeed knowledgeable on the topic at hand.  In this manner, environmental journalists will serve to appropriately inform and empower civil society – and not create untrue perceptions that will take a long time to dissemble.


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