How Neutral Should Journalists Be?

by Conor Friedersdorf

One school of thought contends that balance is paramount: a contested matter demands that the reporter gives equal space to "both sides," presents the debate to readers, and allows them to make up their own minds.

"We report, you decide!"

But there are those who lament that approach. For example:

It's depressing to see how often dubious and even outright false health claims, such as the claim that vaccines cause autism... are reported credulously. Often this takes the form of a journalistic convention that is more appropriate for politics and other issues but not so appropriate for scientific and medical issues, namely telling both sides as though they have equal or similar weight... almost invariably there is an anti-vaccine crank like Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy or someone else from Generation Rescue, or someone like Sallie Bernard from SafeMinds cited as though she were on equal footing, scientifically speaking, with scientists who have dedicated their lives to the science of vaccines.

I've just delved deep into a debate of this kind. Its subject is chronic lyme disease. The Chicago Tribune published a story that casts doubt on the diagnosis. "There's little good evidence that chronic Lyme disease exists," the subtitle reads. "Yet doctors are treating it with drugs that put patients and the public at risk." It's rare to see so forceful a conclusion stated in an American newspaper. The piece is savaged here as biased. And it is praised and defended at length here as appropriately skeptical of chronic lyme disease, and refreshingly willing to give the results of double blind studies more weight than the anecdotal assertions of doctors and patients who represent a minority opinion.

Below the defense of the article there appears a dissenting comment that is the most fascinating aspect of this whole kerfuffle. It is written by Pamela Weintraub, features editor of Discover Magazine, and justifies a long excerpt:

This blog and other protests by non-journalists reminds me of patients going to medical journal sites to protest the scientific method. If you don't like the results, just change the methodology to get what you want. Likewise, at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, the most credible and important source of science journalism peer review, not a single journalist agreed that the story in question represented appropriate journalistic practice, or met the standards of good journalism. Not a single classically trained journalist disagreed with the reviewer, Paul Raeburn, who is himself one of the finest and most credentialed science journalists in the United States. The site was then invaded by voices with knowledge – and especially, by set positions – in medicine, but zero credentials, training, or experience in journalism.

These people rushed in to a space reserved for journalist peer reviewers, to impugn the standards of good journalistic practice endorsed by the journalist peer reviewers, and to insist there was another, better way of doing things: their way, which would rewrite the ethics and guidelines of journalism practice, whole cloth. To wit, these non-journalists feel that they should be enfranchised to peer review journalism along with journalists themselves --and that while they are at it, they should change good journalistic practice and write new rules to suit themselves. This is not going to happen: There is a lot of bad journalism practiced, for instance, the journalism in the Tribune story, but the profession still has standards, still has ethics, still has requirements, still has a set of guidelines to differentiate good work from bad. I don't want to respond much on the science because to me, this is an issue of journalism, pure and simple.

A comment written to discredit the conventions of traditional journalism could hardly do a better job. Strip away all the arguments from authority and you have a woman asserting that the truth of the matter at hand is less important than adhering to the protocol that "credentialed science journalists" have set forth. In her telling, a "peer review" of an article doesn't assess its accuracy so much as whether its authors met "the standards of good journalistic practice." It's a rather stunning confusion of means and ends.

It also implies a consensus about journalistic "rules" that doesn't actually exist. Clearly the editors of The Chicago Tribune thought the story they published was just fine. After reading Weintraub's comment, NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen remarked that "Some day, when kids ask, was there really a priesthood in journalism, did people really think that way," he'd point them to Weintraub's comment. Perhaps most odious of all is Weintraub's remark that "these non-journalists feel that they should be enfranchised to peer review journalism along with journalists themselves." I'm unsure what magic she takes to be conferred by the title journalist, or how exactly one becomes "credentialled" in the field, but among my peers in the press I know very few who regard the work we produce as beyond the capacity of non-journalists to critique, especially if the critics have direct expertise in the subject matter we're writing about. In fact, some of us particularly value outside critiques because we know from long experience that all professions are prone to blind spots, and that a profession meant to inform the public must be especially vigilant in guarding against group think.

Insofar as journalists are owed deference, it springs not at all from their title or credentials. Here at The Atlantic, articles in the print magazine are fact-checked, certain writers have through long hours of reporting developed expertise on certain subjects, and reputations for intellectual honesty have been earned. Non-journalists are perfectly capable of hiring fact-checkers, developing expertise, and building reputations too. The question of who is a journalist and who isn't need never be adjudicated. Longtime readers know that I earned a masters in journalism from NYU. At least at my alma mater, the faculty generally reject the approach to the craft taken by Weintraub, as do most of the journalists I've befriended in the course of my career, and most of the editors that I've worked under.

Judge us not by Weintraub.