The Disappearing Science of Covering Science

Mainstream news media have trouble covering science or anything else that involves a process and lacks a winner and loser. It's worse these days since reporters covering that beat often were among the first to be fired in the search for profitability. Pr

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Mainstream news media have trouble covering science or anything else that involves a process and lacks a winner and loser. It’s worse these days since reporters covering that beat often were among the first to be fired in the search for profitability.

Probably no one has fared worse from this institutional handicap in recent years than Charles Darwin, especially in the past months during the 150th anniversary of his unsettling book on evolution.

The latest ineptitude is described at Huffington Post by Steven Newton, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education. His ire was provoked by misreporting of a recent paper in the journal Biology Letters, "Links between global taxonomic diversity, ecological diversity and the expansion of vertebrates on land" (written by Sarda Sahney, Michael Benton and Paul Ferry). Here’s Newton’s complaint:

“The normally-staid BBC wrote of this paper, ‘Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.’ A Huffington Post piece repeated much of the original BBC article, but felt the need to shout its headline in capital letters: Darwin May Have Been WRONG, New Study Argues. AOL News added: Was Darwin Wrong? An Alternative Theory Emerges.

“With such sensationalist headlines, readers might get the impression that this new study has single-handedly overthrown one of the best-documented scientific theories in history. Creationists will no doubt pass out copies of these articles at school board meetings as final proof against evolution, just as the Discovery Institute trumpeted an inflammatory New Scientist cover article ('Darwin Was Wrong') to the Texas School Board during one of its 2009 meetings. Those who attack evolution will be heartened by these articles and believe that a challenge to evolution has finally been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“The reality is, of course, quite different. These reporters really should have 1) talked to the authors, 2) read the Biology Letters paper, and 3) familiarized themselves with what Darwin wrote. When I talked to (the article’s) lead author Sarda Sahney, of the University of Bristol, she told me unequivocally: ‘We are not in any way suggesting Darwin was wrong.’

“Reporters could have learned this from the Biology Letters paper itself. This paper discusses the role of the ‘expansion and contraction of occupied ecospace’ in animal diversity, arguing that on the large scale, ecospace should be considered a prime factor. A press release for the paper noted that when examining large-scale changes in biodiversity, the data suggest (that) animals diversified by expanding into empty ecological roles rather than by direct competition with each other.

“This paper does not argue that Darwin's conception of small-scale competition within species is incorrect. It does not argue that new species arising out of accumulating changes is a flawed concept. It does not argue Darwin was wrong.

“Mass extinctions in Earth's past have provided opportunities for the large-scale, dramatic ecospace expansions discussed in this paper. But we can also understand this idea with an analogy to a more familiar topic: Darwin's famous Galapagos finches. These birds occupy small, parched islands, on which perennial drought severely limits vegetation. This creates a situation of scarcity in which even small differences in beaks may confer significant advantages. As the pioneering work of Peter and Rosemary Grant shows, competition on a month-by-month, year-by-year scale shapes the evolution of these birds even today.

“Now imagine that a new volcanic island erupts in the Galapagos chain. Suddenly an expanse of new, un-colonized land is available; new food sources will grow there. How will this new land affect finch diversification? That's the kind of question being addressed here. This Biology Letters paper explores expansions and contractions of ecospace — not questions about whether evolution is wrong. This paper suggests a refinement of the details of how evolution happens. Refinements are part of the process of science, and should not be mistaken for attacks.

“Those who do attack evolution — from young earth creationists at Answers in Genesis to intelligent design creationists at the Discovery Institute — do so for reasons outside of science. Answers in Genesis, which runs the Creation Museum in Kentucky, tries to link evolution with abortion, racism, and genocide. The Discovery Institute opposes evolution as part of their broader culture war on ‘materialism.’ By defeating evolution, they hope (in the DI's words) to undo the ‘destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies’ of materialist philosophy. Clearly, these motivations are not about science.

“Some (journalists) did get this story right. Michael Reilly at Discovery News refrained from hyperbole and reported this article as perhaps 'one facet of natural selection that [Darwin] didn't immediately foresee.' Jerry Coyne, a professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, wrote an informative critique of the Biology Letters paper and concluded, ‘It's bizarre to see every modern discovery through a lens of either supporting or refuting [Darwin's] ideas. If we did that, every paper in genetics could be sold to science journalists as showing that Darwin was wrong about inheritance!’ ”

Newton concluded: “Once misguided, sensationalist headlines such as these start to spread, this poisonous misinformation — despite all the hard work and research of scientists — becomes a tool for those who reject science.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• Is it malice, bias or sloth that inspires so many reporters to distort stories about the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan? It isn't a mosque at Ground Zero any more than it's a Cenotaph memorializing Brits who died in the World Trade Centers on 9/11.

Ground Zero was created by Islamist terrorists who hijacked and flew two American jetliners into the twin towers. No one is proposing a mosque at that site. I don’t know Manhattan well, but from what I can figure out, plans submitted to New York City call for an Islamic center — with prayer space — about two blocks away.

In their misguided search for objectivity, too many reporters and broadcast hosts allow people to call it The Mosque at Ground Zero. It’s not just Fox News. NPR has leaped on to the slippery slope of misinformation Saturday. Regular commentator Juan Williams referred to the “mosque” “at Ground Zero.” I’d bet Williams knows better. Of course, he’s also a talking head for Fox News, which unblushingly pushes the inflammatory phrase in its programs. Why Morning Edition host Scott Simon didn’t challenge Williams’ falsehood would be a mystery except that such a non-air confrontation would be a betrayal of their class.  Better to mislead the listeners.

 • August usually is a quiet news month, in large part because public officials who feed so many reporters their daily stories are on vacation or quiescent. That silence gives me time for items I set aside last month. 

The first involves a 1963 story that exploded in London: John Profumo, Britain’s minister for war, was screwing call girl Christine Keeler who was also bedding Soviet naval attache Yevgeni Ivanov. If you saw the movie Scandal, you got an uncommonly good idea of what happened.

I was working at UPI in London and we were very, very busy with that story for weeks. By the time it was done, we all were talking sotto voce about the identity of the headless naked government minister in Polaroid photographs being serviced by titled lady at one of the high society dinners or orgies to which Profumo and Keeler had entre. (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also was named in the scandal, and his reports to the FBI are part of the declassified files. There also was curiosity about the owner of the Polaroid camera.)

FBI files have been declassified routinely under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The chief revelation: FBI assertions that Keeler pumped Profumo for national security information at Ivanov’s behest and their hideaway was bugged by the Soviets. 

London’s Daily Mail quotes extensively from the FBI documents, including the claim that Profumo gave Keeler “a lot” of information that might have compromised U.S. sale of nuclear submarine missiles to Britain. At the time, the public was assured that pillow talk was just that and military secrets weren’t involved. That mattered. The Berlin Wall had just gone up and the truly scary Cuban Missile Crisis had just ended.

Compared to the tacky fornication and adultery that characterizes U.S. political scandal, the Keeler-Profumo affair embraced British society from street walkers to the House of Lords. That, as much as the Cold War implications, fascinated journalists and the public.

Oh. The minister and the duchess at the orgy. I don’t know if anyone ever went public with his identity, since his face wasn't in the Polaroids but she clearly was — British libel law being what it is. After all, who’d testify to the truth of an accurate story? Others at the orgy?

• The second item that I held over comes from two respondents to my questions about purging digital archives: "unpublishing" in the infelicitous phrase used by the news media. They raise a related question: What is the story? Is it the first version on the medium’s web site or a later version as more information becomes available and the reporter tweaks the story? Or is the story the final version, online or printed? Should every version be archived?

CityBeat Editor John Fox said, “A related issue that I think is fascinating is the concept of continuous updates on the web. Say you have a story you run in print and you find out later you messed up a quote or a fact or the person who didn't call you back for the story does call you back the next day and you're able to get their quote in the online version, fundamentally changing the story's tone — in these days and times, the reporter might just rewrite the story for online and smooth over the original problems and keep rewriting the thing. At what point is the story done? Or are we creating never-ending stories that get rewritten continuously? Is it ever really a story if it's constantly rewritten?”

Jason Haap, a founder and driving force at, said, “Sometimes I'll post an item, and then as I'm reading it live on the site I'll notice something I don't like — like a turn of phrase or an innuendo or even a typo, and I'll change it. So if someone happened to see the story in those first few minutes, he or she might see a change — but I just consider that part of my editing process.  If I have an error or mistake reported to me by a reader, I will correct it and make a note of it.”

• It was another fishing trip, brightened by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp’s smart, long interviews on vital issues. Those reporters don’t mince words. Talking with two influential Pakistanis, the reporter wasn’t afraid to ask why fellow Muslims, many in oil-rich countries, were reluctant to send financial aid to flood-stricken, hungry and cholera-threatened fellow Muslims in Pakistan. And the interviewees weren’t afraid to answer candidly: Pakistan’s government is not trusted. CBC’s one-hour discussions of key issues are also a bright spot, as are jazz, rock and old music (vinyl) programs and other nations’  English-language shows overnight. A feature that was new to me was The Link, a magazine of relaxed stories about Canada that were something short of breaking news.

• Dave Hunke, whose success as vice president for advertising at The Enquirer helped him become publisher of USA Today, is streamlining the national Gannett daily to make it more competitive online at the expense of the print edition. As part of that effort, the Associated Press said, Hunke will get rid of about 130 employees from the news and business department — or 9 percent of USA Today’s staff.

From what AP says, Hunke doesn’t have much choice. USA Today circulation and advertising have plunged, and The Wall Street Journal has overtaken it as the nation’s largest circulation daily.

“We’ll focus less on print ... and more on producing content for all platforms (Web, mobile, iPad and other digital formats),” according to a slide show presented last Thursday to USA Today’s staff. It also said USA Today’s restructuring will “usher in a new way of doing business that aligns sales efforts with the content we produce.”

USA Today still makes most of its money from its print edition, but AP said the reorganization “revolves around smart phones and computer tablets such as Apple Inc.’s iPad, which are creating new ways to sell subscriptions and advertising. “We have to go where the audience is,” Editor John Hillkirk said. “If people are hitting the iPad like crazy, or the iPhone or other mobile devices, we’ve got to be there with the content they want, when they want it.”

That raises questions of how ad sales might affect news judgment. AP quoted Hunke and Hillkirk as saying the newspaper won’t allow its need to generate more revenue interfere with its commitment to investigative journalism. “Under no circumstances do we ever compromise our integrity,” Hunke said. “But I don’t see any problem with finding out ways to build out strategies that work for advertisers. Frankly, if we do that, we will have a very prosperous future and we are going to stay in the journalism business.”

• Christopher Weaver writes on NPR’s web site about a four-day cancer seminar for journalists being paid for by drug giant Pfizer. Fifteen reporters will get all-expenses-paid trips to Washington in October for the session. “The nonprofit National Press Foundation, which is hosting the seminar, says it's intended to ‘help journalists understand the latest research and its implications for cervical, prostate, breast and other cancers.’ But critics say it also creates the appearance of a conflict that journalists should avoid,” Weaver wrote. “Gary Schwitzer, a longtime health journalist who now runs a nonprofit service that critiques health coverage, asked in an e-mail, ‘How can news consumers be sure of the veracity of the content that attending reporters write on these topics in the future?’ He points out that the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics code tells reporters to refuse ‘free travel and special treatment.’ ... Foundation staff — not Pfizer — choose the speakers, who are unpaid and the fellowship recipients. They also set what they promise will be a ‘balanced and fair’ agenda. Pfizer gets a chance to address the participants at the beginning of the retreat, and explain why the company sponsored the program.”

NPR’s Weaver said, “Foundation president Bob Meyers, a Washington Post veteran who helped cover Watergate, said Pfizer had zero input on last year's meeting, which it also sponsored, and the agenda was set before Pfizer signed on.”

Ray Kerins, the Pfizer spokesman who skipped last year's session, told NPR that there was no expectation of quid-pro-quo for the grant and that the firm gave the money in hopes of improving the quality of cancer coverage. "We can complain about journalists not understanding the scientific research, or we can be part of the solution," Kerins said. The firm's sponsorship of the cancer program is fully disclosed, he added, and it's up to journalists to decide whether they want to participate.

• London’s Daily Mail reports that a British family was awarded about $150,000 after a divided panel decided the three-way Mumps Measles Rubella injection caused their son’s profound disabilities 17 years ago. Whether this aids Americans who blame MMR for their children’s autism is unclear. The panel, divided on Robert Fletcher’s disabilities, said its decision “has no relevance to the issue ... as to whether there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.” MMR is typically given to infants or toddlers. Robert, now almost 19, received his vaccination when he was 13 months. He apparently does not suffer autism.

The paper said Robert’s mother, Jackie, applied for compensation under the Britain’s Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme. She was rejected in 1997 on the grounds that it was impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt what had caused Robert’s disabilities. She appealed and the panel — two physicians and a trial lawyer — said, “Robert was a more or less fit boy who, within the period usually considered relevant to immunisation, developed a severe convulsion ... and he then went on to be epileptic and severely retarded. The seizure occurred ten days after the vaccination. In our view, this cannot be put down to coincidence. It is this temporal association that provides the link. It is this that has shown on the balance of probabilities that the vaccination triggered the epilepsy. On this basis, we find that Robert is severely disabled as a result of vaccination and this is why we allowed the appeal.”

The Daily Mail said the split decision followed testimony by a leading expert on vaccine-damaged children, paediatric neurologist Dr Marcel Kinsbourne, who said biological changes in Robert’s brain followed MMR. The one-day hearing was chaired by the lawyer sitting with two physicians, Professor Sundara Lingam, a former consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and Dr. Adrian Allaway. Lingam disagreed with the others, saying Robert was “genetically predisposed to epilepsy and that the vaccination triggered it rather than caused it. Robert would have developed epilepsy in any event, even if he had not had the vaccination.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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