Earlier today, Green Party leader Elizabeth May had these two tweets:
That set off a whole storm of criticism at the Green Party leader who was accused of, among other things, being a Luddite. As May would tweet later in the day, “shocked by some Twitter reaction” and “Twitter sure works to spark debate“. Indeed it does, Ms. May, indeed it does
[Update: May would provide a substantial blog post at the end of the day on this topic. See “The Twitter fire storm and why I said what I said about Wi-Fi“). The National Post's editorialists had at her anyway
My little corner of this debate eventually hinged (as I saw it, anyhow): How do journalists go about finding the 'truth' of the matter? Though I've been a journalist for more than 25 years, I do not claim to know the answer to this question. In fact, if you're in my profession, I think it a good thing to recognize that you do not know the answers to a lot of questions! Still: At some point, you are faced with a constructing some version of reality for your readers and viewers and, in many cases, it will be impossible to construct that story without the assumptions of some truths behind it.
Here's National Post writer Jonathan Kay talking about this in his book Among the Truthers (the book is a look at 9/11 Truthers and other conspiracy theories):
The fact is that there is a grain of truth to the claim that media creates its own “invented reality”… just not in the way that conspiracy theorists believe … rather, the reality we journalists “invent” is very much based on the mundane happenings in the world around us, but it is selected, packaged, and sold according to our own editorial and ideological biases, as well as our commercial understanding of what interests our readers, listeners, and viewers. As a result, the news that appears in the media often is dumbed down, sensationalized, slanted left or right in a way that can make people think we are making it up all out of whole cloth.
… In describing the day's news, for instance, FOX and NPR provide such different points of view that they might as well be broadcasting from different planets. In the current political environment, the usual practice among ordinary media consumers is they “trust” one side and accuse the other of dishonesty .. (p. 94-95)
Kay's book is largely a debunking of the “Truther” movement but what about a journalist on deadline, without the ability to interview scores of sources and read dozens of reports? How are we to know which scientist has it right and which doesn't?
Put yourself, for a minute, in the shoes of a journalist who has no science background and ask yourself what you make of these three statements
1. Scientists say smoking causes cancer.
2. Scientists say climate change is happening right now; that mankind can do something to slow climate change; and that if we do not do something, bad things will happen.
3. Scientists say long-term exposure to low-power wifi radiation could be harmful to your health.
Now, sixty years ago just like today, a journalist confronted with claim number one would seek out an expert — like a doctor — to set them down the path to knowledge. Sixty years ago, if you asked a doctor about smoking, you might get something like this:
At some point, of course, the experts figured out that smoking kills and journalists are hard-pressed today to find an expert that will sing the virtues of smoking.
But what about statement two?
Any journalist (like me) who's ever written about climate change can expect a deluge of e-mail challenging our reporting if their reporting assumes the truth of statement number two. Indeed, we'll get many correspondents who believe that there is a mass media conspiracy to suppress important information that suggests climate change science is a great fraud. For better or worse, I am not one of those journalists. I believe in the truth of statement two (though you will find some journalists ready to challenge that truth) though that leaves lots of room for discussion about the policy implications that stem from accepting statement two. And I should point out that statement two is accepted by all federal political parties, from Conservatives to Greens. There is no one in Parliament to champion a dissenting view of the basics around this fact.
But one of the reasons I have come to believe in statement two is that I have talked to enough scientists but I also rely heavily on “official” pronouncements from the Government of Canada and the like that this the accepted view of most scientists.
Now what about statement three? Personally, I want statement three to be false because I love wi-fi and find it useful. Not only that, I have a wi-fi network at work and at home. Professionally, though, I ought to challenge my own views on this and approach this issue with a commitment to fairly and accurately reporting the science on this issue. Right?
The issue, so far as I can tell, has not been as exhaustively studied as smoking or climate change. So far, though, there does not appear to be any conclusive evidence of any harm. Indeed, most of the studies I've seen say: There is no harm. And yet, here's a professor at a recognized Canadian university who believes that there is the potential for harm and that we have not studied the issue enough. Meanwhile, the the folks at Princeton University saying, relax, wifi is safe.
So if it was just Trent versus Princeton here, who would you go with? Journalists, I submit, are as influenced by brand and reputation as anyone else. And, though I'm very fond of Trent and mean no disrespect, Princeton wins here on rep.
But — if you know Trent, Trent folks would see this as precisely the reason to be supporting Trent. Princeton stands for big science and big money — and don't you think telecoms pay for all that research? Trent is the indie guy with no axe to grind except looking out for your health!
I'm generalizing here a bit but I hope you get my point: No matter what the subject, journalists have to, as a practical matter, give more weight to one source than another. And if more sources are on one side than the other, we tend to go with that.
But those choices, inevitably, lead to charges of bias and calls for objectivity. This, at the end of it all, was what my Twitter conversation came to be about. I was asked: Why can't you just report the facts? Ok, then. Which ones? All of them? Cuz the minute you choose to omit one fact and keep another in, you have made a value decision and value decisions are not, by definition, objective decisions. Which story would you put on the front page? The one about the death of the gun registry or the death of the long-form census? Both are certainly important, one could argue, but one will sell more papers than the other. Is a news organization biased if it chooses one over the other?
Again: I do not have all the answers to these question but I am convinced of a few things, namely:
1. I will wake up tomorrow ready to prove myself wrong of what I thought to be true today. That's my job.
2. My readers and viewers are smarter than I am.
3. I'm a good enough journalist to be fair and to be accurate but I'm going to need a lot of help, advice, and luck to be “truthful and objective.”
And on that note, I leave you with this, which is funny because it's largely true and explains much about the news business: