19 July 2012

Let journalists do their jobs

Last year the science journalism community had a spirited discussion  about the practice of allowing sources (in this case, scientists) to "fact check" and approve quotes in news articles before publication.  One of the best tick-tocks I found was from Seth Mnookin.

The gist I got from the discussion was this: some scientists think their work is simply too complex for reporters to understand, so they should get the final review before an article is published. (I got a wry chuckle out of this Guardian editorial.) Some journalists pushed back a bit, saying journalism was an independent process and they, not the interview subject, are the more proper final arbiters of unbiased information.

I fall on the side of journalistic independence. I don't have a problem with a reporter returning to a source to confirm facts. The best reporters do that all the time. But the reporter (and editor) should have final say on what appears under their byline. And for those who think their scientific fields deserve some special status of "really hard" where they alone deserve this right to review, I'd like them to explain, say, the United States tax code in three paragraphs.

As a PR guy I'd love to review and sign off on all stories related to my clients before publication.  A lot of my clients are science-based companies. But I'm fairly certain people would raise a red flag about this for any number of reasons, and they'd be right to do so.   My job is to strengthen and protect a client's reputation, and I work hard to influence what people say about my clients.  A journalist has to make sure I'm not spinning something so she or he can report the facts.  But here's the thing: my presence or absence in this discussion doesn't change the journalist's job.  As distasteful as it may be to some, journalists also are vetting their sources for personal agendas, biases, or conflicts of interest.  Scientists are no better and no worse than any other group in this regard.

So I'm pleased the National Association of Science Writers took note of recent reports that political campaigns are reviewing and editing quotes from their spokespersons before article publication. They also note (via Poynter) that Associated Press has a different policy than the New York Times.

In politics, spin is basically baked into the process.  The good news is everyone knows it.  Look at the political coverage in any major "beltway" news publication.  You'll see candidates' quotes, and then you'll see analysis from dozens of others as to what those quotes "actually mean" based on their financial and political interests.   Political reporting is arguably the most transparent reporting there is - practically everyone mentioned in an article is identified with a party affiliation.  Even pollsters are labeled this way.  If someone fails to disclose a financial interest in a discussion, a reporter has a real scoop.  Right now, the presumptive GOP nominee for President is catching a lot of flack for not following the custom (not law) of releasing roughly a decade's worth of tax returns to the media.  This failure to voluntarily disclose - not the content of the returns themselves, but simply the unwillingness to share them - is having a measurable impact on the Governor's chances in the election.

The sad thing is, this condition lies at the core of America's lack of faith in its politicians.  We actually expect our politicians to lie to us and to cover things up.  We have groups like "Politifact" even analyzing the degree to which someone is lying - and then we have people who fact-check politifactBeltway journalists often joke that a "gaffe" is when a politician tells you what he's really thinking.  Today, when politicians say something that's demonstrably false or otherwise ridiculous, they're more likely to "double down" than to back off.  Clarification is actually a sign of weakness. 

So it's quite convenient to have the luxury of sanitizing one's quotes before publication.  It eliminates that messy step of being held accountable for what you actually said. Without this accountability, more and more Americans wisely refuse to take a politician's published statements at face value.  And the faith Americans have in the political process continues to disintegrate. 

My fear is the reputation of science will follow a similar path if scientists try to exercise similar influence over the process of journalism.  If you encourage the media to hold you accountable, your credibility is only improved.  If you try to own the process, you look more like a spin doctor than a PhD. 

Even if the reporter gets it wrong, I say that's often a blessing in disguise. It gives you another chance to talk with the reporter and get your work publicized.  More importantly, if you handle the situation diplomatically and effectively, it gives you an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with the reporter, making it more likely that you'll be seen as a resource (and not a jerk).  

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