Cheap Seats 2019
Journalism Under Siege - 10/16
By Rich Trzupek
Journalists are on the defensive. Sometimes the criticism is unfounded, but too often it’s earned. As a scientist who has been writing about chemical and environmental topics for 30-some years, I have a somewhat different take on why and how bad reporting happens. While it’s certainly true that most American journalists lean left, the basic problem is not liberal journalists making up stories as President’s Trump’s use of his catch-phrase “fake news” suggests. The problem is more subtle. It’s an increasingly complex world, so issues necessarily involve more complexity as well and most journalists are very poor at understanding and relating the details and nuanced interactions that are at the real heart of complex stories.
Let’s look at an example of what I’m talking about that involves one of my personal areas of expertise: environmental issues. A couple of weeks ago several news outlets ran a story about a baby turtle found with 104 pieces of plastic in its belly. The CNN piece that ran on Oct. 5 was typical in tone and content of the way the story was covered. It presented a grim picture: dehydrated turtles being nursed back to life or, in some cases, dying. The typical reader was surely left with the impression that plastic pollution is endangering the turtle population and that it would be a far better world if we reduced our use of plastics.
But is that what the story actually said? Not in my opinion. The reporter failed to make a creditable case because of two basic mistakes that I, and other scientists, see time and again when journalists attempt to cover stories that have a scientific or technical foundation: easily avoided factual errors that a competent science and technology editor should have caught, and failure to present a complete picture by failing to ask the right questions.
Take this line from the story: “After it died, Mirowski dissected the turtle and found its stomach was full of plastic, ranging from balloons to bottle labels”. Balloons are generally, but admittedly not always, made of latex which is not a plastic. Bottle labels can be plastic, but paper is much more common. In a companion story, CNN’s reporter talked about particles found in other turtles, saying that “…the most common sources of these materials were tires, cigarettes, clothing and marine equipment, including ropes and fishing nets.” Tires and cigarettes are not plastic, clothing is sometimes made of polymers which can be called plastic if one stretches the term. Ropes and nets are often made of synthetic polymers as well.
The point here is that based on the contaminants found, the problem isn’t so much about plastics per se, it’s about dumping all sorts of refuse in the ocean. Calling all contaminants plastic is not only incorrect, it diverts attention from the larger issue.
And just how pervasive is this problem? Are there species of turtle on the Endangered List? If so, which species? Which species are thriving? How do these turtle deaths compare with deaths from other causes? Most of us have seen footage of baby turtles racing across the beach to reach the sea as predator birds grab scores before they can make it. How does this natural attrition compare to deaths caused by refuse ingestion? Is this problem an emergency demanding immediate action, or is it an unfortunate, but relatively insignificant issue when one reviews all the data?
We’ll never know, because the reporter didn’t ask those probing questions that would allow a reader to fairly decide how big, or little of a crisis this is. Instead she only told the part of the story her source wanted her to tell, to create the impression desired. Fake news? Not really. Incomplete news is a more accurate descriptor, as it so often is in proportion to the complexity of the issue.