Dr. François Gonon, a neurobiologist at the University of Bordeaux, together with his colleagues recently published an article in The Public Library of Science, taking a foray into media criticism. Using attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, for his experiment metaphor, Gonon and company searched the databases PubMed and Factiva for articles on ADHD. They found that 47 papers on ADHD received coverage in 347 articles in English-language newspapers during the 1990s. From these, The Economist reports, Gonon’s team picked 10 papers that had enjoyed fully 223 of the news articles.
What happened next, if you’ll forgive me, turned out to be a case of journalistic ADHD. While 67 later studies examined those selected 10, the second batch received attention in only 57 newspaper articles total, with most of them focusing on only two such studies. Gonon’s conclusion: An “almost complete amnesia in the newspaper coverage of biomedical findings.”
Why does this matter? Well, as it turns out, 80 percent of the original newspaper articles happened to be mistaken or at least incomplete, as they either refuted or substantially modified original findings of the studies. But readers, by and large, never heard about this. So even those few readers lucky enough to have access to one of the few newspapers that take such matters seriously found themselves uninformed. And what’s more, The Economist found, via Google News, that no English language newspaper mentioned the release of Gonon’s study.
This kind of failure may be endemic to journalism. Scientific researchers tend not to have publicists. They do not go on cable chat shows. And they rarely mention Justin Bieber. Their papers are difficult to understand and translate into eighth-grade-level English, and they do not excite advertisers. The only reason to publish articles about scientific research is that they constitute news—and actual news is in shorter and shorter supply in our media.
But perhaps the most significant problem facing those scientists seeking increased public dissemination of the significance of their work—and the rest of us who would like to try to understand it—is the deliberate distortion of those results for reasons of ideological obsession and financial gain. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently took a hard look at the coverage of climate science on Fox News and in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, both owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. In the case of Fox, they discovered that 93 percent of segments dealing with the issue were “misleading.” In every single case the distortions led viewers in the same direction: As Media Matters noted, Fox News either broadly dismissed the scientific consensus on man-made climate change or drowned out the truth with foolish and discredited arguments.
Last year a study published in The International Journal of Press/Politics concluded, “Fox broadcasts were more likely to include statements that challenged the scientific agreement on climate change, undermined the reality of climate change, and questioned its human causes.” This may not surprise many on an instinctual level, but it is important to have this impression confirmed by careful scientific analysis.
In the case of the once-respected Wall Street Journal, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 81 percent of the articles focusing on climate science “attempted to broadly undermine the major conclusions of climate science.” A separate Media Matters analysis found that in the last year the newspaper published a op-ed by non-experts that misled readers on climate science, but declined to publish an op-ed by a physicist who studied the issue and reconfirmed the temperature record.
The damage done by this deliberate spread of misinformation goes well beyond the consumers of Murdoch properties. The virus corrupts the rest of our media as well. Reporters and editors at respected, “objective” news outlets feel pressure to treat false information as legitimate either through a commitment to what I call “on the one-handism” and “false balance”—in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts—or simply because they themselves have been fooled.
Case in point: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler observed that PBS “stumbled badly” when it broadcast a segment on “PBS NewsHour” that sought to create “an artificial or false equivalence” between global warming “skeptics” and “believers.” In what Getler called a “stunning” choice, “NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels interviewed Anthony Watts—a meteorologist and Heartland Institute-funded pundit—rather than a scientist or a university-credentialed researcher to offer “balance” between the conclusions endorsed by 99.5 percent of climate experts recently surveyed at a series of America’s first-rank universities versus the nonsense offered up by an ideological, often industry-funded fringe.
The combination of the inherent weaknesses of journalism—its ADHD combined with its declining resources—coupled with an increasing unwillingness to stand up to the purposeful pollution of the public sphere by the likes of Murdoch (and now, sadly, PBS) makes the practice of democracy ever more difficult. Voters cannot make informed decisions based on misinformation, much less deliberate disinformation. The job of the journalist is to combat this disease, not to spread it.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.