This post follows an exchange of comment on facebook between a science based techie, a journalist and me. The techie starts, “Problem with journalism investigating science is that they erroneously believe in balance. That gives nutjobs like Monckton a voice”. After some discussion about presenting a balanced view, the journalist commented, “When thousands of people are interested in what the alleged quack has to say, that constitutes public interest. Right or wrong. Money? Wish it didn't matter but it does. But in this instance, public interest and money aren't necessarily intrinsic. Part of journalism/media's role is to inform people. If they are asking questions then they deserve some answers. It's not so very complicated or dark - just a mirror of society”.
I wondered to myself if any law or ethics are currently taught to our young ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate. If journalists want to present a “balanced” view then they need to let the public compare apples with apples. Scientists by definition carry out their work according to established methodologies. Any results are then subject to the rigor of peer review. Balance in science journalism would be putting one scientist up against another. Put the loop quantum gravity proponent up against the string theorist. If journalists merely want to generate revenue by presenting outrageous opinion, then interview the creationist alongside the lady who thinks it’s turtles all the way down. Don’t mix them up. The first two are scientists, the second two are not.
The problem with poor standards of journalism in relation to science is the harm misinformation perpetrates. Quackery and pseudo science affect the public’s understanding of, inter alia, vaccination, cancer treatments and earth and climate science. Thoughtless dissemination of minority non-science based views can and does cost lives. By all means let lunatics have their say on their own page or on a soap box in Hyde Park. But, the constraints of quality journalism outweigh the public’s desire for ready access to odd-ball opinion through mainstream media, and, the right of mainstream media to generate revenue without constraint. Freedom of speech is not and never has been undelimited in any society, and, it is certainly not the right merely to make noise. Like all rights it comes with responsibilities. In this case, responsible journalism.