April 23-24, 2012

Madison, WI

"Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors." -Thomas Huxley

Journalistic ethics in the Age of Denial: Panel discussion

The workshops kicked off Tuesday morning with coffee and a conversation on Journalistic Ethics in the Age of Denial. This panel featured Deborah Blum, journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; George Johnson, freelance science journalist; Dennis Meredith, research communication; and Dan Fagin, professor at New York University.

Deborah Blum began by admitting the journalists have been discussing the ethics of their work probably for about as long as there have been journalists. However, today, science journalists are writing more about retracted papers and the mistakes of science. Blum asked if this poses an ethical question for science journalists: If, as we cover the messy process of science, do we play an implicit role in fueling public distrust of science?

Blum argued that the responsible decision is give more coverage of the story of science. Through increased transparency on sources, links to the primary papers, and discussion of the human process, replete with natural mistakes, we can tell better, more truthful stories.

George Johnson followed Blum, pointing out that how we do good journalistic work hasn’t really changed in the new age of denial. While all good journalists admit that we’ll never be able to achieve complete objectivity, he still believes that we can all aim in that direction.  Johnson took issue with the idea that transparency is the ideal solution for telling stronger science stories. He argued that perhaps if we are experts at what we do, maybe we need to worry less about transparency.

Johnson also talked about the difference between fact-checking and running copy past a source.  He thinks that showing a full story to a source is not ethical fact checking, and says that journalists need to be careful about not getting to close to our sources.

Dennis Meredith shared a quick PowerPoint presentation about working with a Public Information Officers. He started with a cartoon that showed a researcher’s simple correlation expanding through a game of “telephone,” exaggerated though every step of the news cycle until it was blown way out of proportion. Jokes asides, Meredith encouraged journalists to ask PIOs some hard questions:

Is the PIO part of the development office? Are there quirky administrative policies in place at the institution? Where does the PIO get his or her information from? What is the PIO culture at the institution? Meredith also recommended pushing back against PIOs who mislead or mismanage.

Lastly, Dan Fagin tried to define how journalism ethics have changed in the new media landscape. He describes the fundamental changes in the media environment that allow news to be produced and shared by anyone. Journalists are no longer the gatekeepers of information, and he warned against responding like a castle under siege. But, continuing with his analogy, if journalists come out of their castles, they have to engage in a world where most people don’t follow the journalistic code of ethics. Fagin asked, How can we learn to navigate that?

Fagin also cautioned that it’s very easy to create an “us versus them” mentality but stereotyping is dangerous, especially political stereotyping. There’s a difference between correlation and causation, and there are certainly exceptions. With this in mind, he warned us to beware of a partisan framework for our stories.  Fagin reminded us to look for the difference between denial and outliers, because outliers require both respect and skepticism from us.

Lastly, the conversation turned to new media landscape and the role that new generation of journalists play in the world where they won’t be the gatekeepers of information. Both Blum and Fagin explained that so many new ways to communicate and new ways to reach an audience are perceived as opportunities by younger journalists who have joined the profession in the social media age.

Robert Lee Hotz, of the Wall Street Journal, asked the first question from the audience, offering a passionate endorsement of Fagin’s statement about refusing to accept a partisan framework. He said that it can be dangerously convenient to put on partisan blinders that prevent journalists from engaging directly with their readers.

Next, Joann Rodgers related that in her many years of experience at Johns Hopkins, only a handful of journalists ever asked her about who funds the research or other potential conflicts of interest. She explained that conflicts aren’t necessarily bad or good, but they need to be part of the story, and she asked the panel how they would teach journalists to ask those hard-hitting questions. Fagin responded that perhaps it might feel awkward to ask these questions, but it shouldn’t be, because it’s how the world of research works today.

The panel concluded that these questions about the conflicts and the context that surround a science story are the places where journalists can succeed in the new media environment. Professional journalists might not be the first to break a story, but they can do the best job of giving a story the context it needs to be objective and relevant.

A collection of tweets from the session can be found on Storify here

By Kate Prengaman

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