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12/08/2008

Smith and WaPo: What Does It Mean to Be a Good Science Journalist?

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Within one 24 hour period last week, two articles discussing science journalism and questions of evidence versus interpretation appeared.

The first was a Washington Post column by Deborah Howell which tried to make “sense of science reporting”. In particular, what struck me from this column was a comment by David Brown, science reporter for the Post, who said:

“In science, there is a natural tension between evidence and opinion, and evidence always wins. What authority figures have to say about anything in science is ultimately irrelevant. Unfortunately, in a lot of science reporting, as in a lot of reporting in general, that isn’t the case.”

Minutes later, I was confronted by a blog post from Secondhand Smoke’s Wesley Smith criticizing former Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss, who has now gone on to work for the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress. His criticism? That Weiss has been spit out the revolving door of journalism and has landed squarely where he always was–writing pro-science, pro-stem cell research pieces, but now for a political think tank rather than a newspaper.

How to square these two radically different perspectives is difficult as both writers have their positions to uphold. Journalists must maintain their role as objective conduits for information, and Smith must contend that anyone holding a liberal position on stem cell research and other science policies must be bad. Yet, there must be a middle ground here. As Brown noted, there is always a hint of the opinion in reporting–journalists see things with their own eyes after all–and it certainly influences how journalists find stories, approach them, and ultimately write them. But the question remains as to whether this is a bad thing. Can one ever imagine a completely value-neutral journalism any more than we could imagine value-neutral science?

I think not. Otherwise, why would some people read the New York Times and others US News and World Report? The bias that exists in journalism shines through in which issues are covered and how–but as long as all journalists get their facts straight, I don’t see how we have much to complain about.

So tell me, Mr. Smith, did Weiss ever get his facts wrong? If not, I’m not sure you have any justification to call him a shill.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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