"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Cowardice of the Media

Another approach to understanding the cowardice of the media is to contemplate the litigious nature of the partisans.

Journalist Amy Fisher on being sued by anti-vaccine extremists for accurate reporting:
So, we won. But not before thousands of hours (and countless dollars) were spent proving how fair the story was. This is the nature of the beast. And the beast doesn’t tire, it seems, of taking whacks at those who dare to describe it.

A few weeks ago, Age of Autism caught wind of the fact that my Wired article is going to be included in the next edition of the annual compilation Best American Science Writing. The site promptly published a post. “Remember Amy Wallace? I sure wish I didn’t,” the writer began, adding: “For those lucky enough not to, I apologize for ruining your day.”

The post then asserted that the inclusion of my Wired piece in the book was simply payback from the pharmaceutical industry. How, you may wonder, did they make that leap? Well, this year’s collection is being edited by Dr. Jerome Groopman, the Harvard professor, scientist and writer. And according to Age of Autism, “Drug companies Immunex and Hoffman-La Roche have funded Groopman’s research. He has authored a chapter on viral infection in a symposia published by Novartis, and has served on the speaker’s bureau of Ortho Biotech, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson...”

They keep going in their list of supposed conflicts, but you get the idea. The point is this: When you enter the vaccine-thicket, one thing you can rely upon is that experts will be vilified. To the extent you attempt, with thorough reporting, independent research and cogent analysis, to become something of an expert yourself, you likely will be labeled a villain, too.
And then, what if a partisan gets to be attorney general?

The fact that the courts seem to remain sane on many of these cases is some consolation. But litigation is not fun (especially for the defendant) or cheap, and not every judge is all that well-grounded in reality.


Alice Robertson said...

But you still enjoy the majority of the populace and media supporting you. We still enjoy the freedom of speech to reach the masses unhindered? In-other-words, you win the battle in the court of public opinion. And as bothersome as some anti-immunizers are one has to give them credit for making vaccines much safer than they were years ago. And there was a court case won by a neurologist and his nurse wife that showed the shot did cause their daughter's form of autism. Science is becoming so affected by agendas we have a generation of questioning parents, and as flustered as each side becomes I, personally, rejoice that I am able to come online and not only read about "research" but I am not one who rejects firsthand accounts. With a daughter with cancer the firsthand accounts are both terrifying and comforting, but no parent wants an algorithum dictating their child's life or identity. In our case the stats seem unreliable, but personal accounts are painfully informative, but helpful. I rejoice that the online community, in all it's agony and splendor....gives parents so many more options that a type of Russian Roulette style decision making many doctors offer.

Michael Tobis said...

We have our own anti-science to deal with. Discussion of vaccine safety is not a topic here. If you must be irrational, please do so on topic.

"And as bothersome as some anti-immunizers are one has to give them credit for making vaccines much safer than they were years ago."

That sounds peculiarly familiar. I am not inclined to believe it.

dhogaza said...

" Science is becoming so affected by agendas we have a generation of questioning parents"

Yeah, I remember very well when I was underage and had acute appendicitis and my mother refused to sign the papers at first because surgeons are so affected by their agenda ("cut first, ask questions later!"). She was sure it was unnecessary.

Me screaming "sign the effing paper, mother!!!!".

"That sounds peculiarly familiar. I am not inclined to believe it."

Worth saving, though. It's the only climate science denialist argument I've heard that doesn't have an analog in the standard creationist repetoire (to my knowledge, at least, and now I'm sure someone will find an example).

Deech56 said...

"I am not inclined to believe it."

Neither am I. If this does go OT, I am happy to discuss - in a former life I was a vaccine researcher.

Tom said...

Some journalists attacked Cuccinelli (myself among others) when he announced his witch hunt. Some prominent bloggers (you, among others) sat on the sidelines.

So now you can attack journalists who objected to Cuccinelli and pat yourself on the back.

Climate science 'truth' at its best.

guthrie said...

I must have missed the clause in the contract michael signed which said he had to attack every person who was doing something stupid in the cause of climate change denialism.
And just because you call an idiot an idiot (And happen to beright regarding Cuccinnelli) doesn't mean you automatically get a free pass on everything else.

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

guthrie, I don't want a free pass on everything else. I am not a scientist and I am wrong at least as frequently as anybody else.

But Michael Tobis has been one of the most frequent critics of journalistic performance regarding climate science. Pointing out where he might have made a contribution instead of a point is, I think, legitimate.

Michael, at some point you have to realise that you are now doing what journalists do, doing it in the same space that they do it, and for some of the same reasons.

So when you talk about the accomplishment and failures of the profession and those who practice it, you would do well to use the first person plural when doing so.

Michael Tobis said...

I am indeed doing journalism, because most journalists don't.

Jay Rosen is a professor of Journalism, and he still criticizes journalism pretty harshly.

But as is so often the case, I am not quite sure what you want me to do differently.

Tom said...

Hi MT, I am not sure I'm the right person to give you advice, but I do think that improving journalism has relatively little to do with criticizing journalists.

Regardless of the fact that you are now on the playing field, you don't have training or experience in journalism, and your criticism is not always well-informed.

I have often written to you that I think you should be writing more about the science. You could also spend some time writing about the scientists.

Right now, for example, Mosher and folks at Lucia's have been working on temperature anomaly calculations, and are coming up with the same-looking charts. Why don't you write about that?

Besides, being a media critic is one of my gigs and I don't need the competition.

Sam said...


what about journalism training is that much different than any critical thinking training (hard sciences, engineering)? Making some kind of exclusive guild argument that MT or myself or anyone else who can put together a cogent argument about journalistic failing should not do so because we are not in the guild is pure propaganda. Whether or not one is trained in protecting anonymous sources and journalism law has little to do with a serious practicing lay-critic of science journalism. Learning to reason and find credible sources, and sort the wheat of truth from magical thinking is what science teaches, no other pedigree required. Evolution is settled science, even if certain cults disagree, and should be reported as such. The impending reality of human-induced climate change is settled science and should be reported as such. Only the ranges and timelines are open for serious discussion as well as policy responses. If professional journalists are too cowed to do so, a lay-journalist trained in understanding the scientific process can (and commendably so) do so. At will. With only the street cred of rational thought and its exposition required.

Tom said...

Sam, you're broadly right, in that it's much easier to learn journalism than many other fields, but there are tips and tricks, traditions, rules of the road and best practices, just as with any other field.

The explosion of blogging and bloggers sort of proves both of our points--that people untrained in journalism can write for a broad audience, but that most would benefit from a bit of study and experience.

Michael Tobis said...

But I've been writing on the internet for 18 years, since before you heard of the internet. Doesn't that count as experience of some sort?

Robert Nagle said...

I'm a blogger and nonscientist who blogs about all sorts of things (including climate change).

One big problem for bloggers is liability for lawsuits like this. (Google SLAPP for more information). Just defending yourself against bogus charges can get expensive.

I don't know what Wired's arrangement was, I'm guessing they had liability insurance against these kinds of lawsuits. Individual bloggers do not.

Robert Nagle, aka
idiotprogrammer .

Tom said...

MT, I actually heard of the internet back in 73, but I take your point. But isn't it also true that you have more or less consciously written for a not-the-general-public type of audience?

At any rate, a lot of your criticism of journalism does not seem knowledgeable. If you're really all that upset with journalists or their employers, wouldn't it make sense to learn something about what they do and why?

Padraig Tomas said...


In you link you refer to journalist Amy Fisher, while also refering to Amy Wallace in the body of the essay. It seems Ms. Wallace is the author who was sued and that Ms. Fisher is the litigant who wished to silence Amy Wallace. The names of interest are Amy Wallace and Barbara Loe Fisher. See the linked article to confirm.