[See update at bottom.]
In New York City last week, I found myself in a cab driven by a burly, jovial local named Steve. He’s a jazz bassist and a vegetarian who recycles and composts, but is conservative in his politics, distrustful of government and anything associated with it. I asked about his general thoughts on climate change and his answer was absolutely fascinating. He started off tentatively, glancing at me as though I were going to judge him, but when I didn’t he got rolling and ended up going on for a full 10 minutes. I so wish I could have recorded it. It was a perfect articulation of what I take to be the general orientation of millions of Americans.
Overall, Steve is skeptical. Not dogmatic, not ranting about a hoax or incipient global government, just … skeptical. There’s no single overriding reason, just bits and pieces he’s heard here and there. (Something about volcanoes, sunspots, how scientists used to predict global cooling, etc.) He’s not totally sure what he thinks, but he’s heard enough contradictory facts and theories to render the whole thing fishy. Seems to him there are clearer, more immediate problems to work on. He specifically mentioned air pollution, for instance.
What bothered Steve most of all was the politicization of the subject. It seems to him that everyone has skin in the game: scientists funded by government, scientists funded by corporations, TV talking heads, Al Gore, all of ‘em. What he wants, he said more than once, is someone just to talk to him like he’s an adult — no BS, no agenda, no emotional manipulation. “Just givitame straight!” he kept saying. What he obviously craves is clarity, just to get the damn thing settled.
I was thinking about Steve as I read this unforgivable dreck from John Broder in The New York Times. The headline tells you everything: “At House EPA Hearing, Both Sides Claim Science.”
And it’s true! Both sides did claim science. For paragraph after paragraph, Broder dutifully transcribes who said what, this side’s scientists and that side’s scientists, this guy’s zinger and that guy’s zinger. At no point in the story is there a hint that there might be facts of the matter behind the dueling quotes, that one set of assertions might be supported by more evidence than the other, that one set of scientists might have more credibility than the other. At no point in the story is there a fact about the world — the only facts are that people said stuff.
Those facts are not false. The people really did say the stuff. But the average reader will come away with no way of weeding through the claims, no perspective or context, no incremental gain in understanding. Nobody will know anything they didn’t know before, just that a bunch of politicians in D.C. are bickering.
All I can picture is Steve, rolling his eyes in frustration.
UPDATE: Science, it seems, has stepped in to prove my point:
Passive news reporting that doesn’t attempt to resolve factual disputes in politics may have detrimental effects on readers, new research suggests.
The study found that people are more likely to doubt their own ability to determine the truth in politics after reading an article that simply lists competing claims without offering any idea of which side is right.
“There are consequences to journalism that just reports what each side says with no fact checking,” said Raymond Pingree, author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.
“It makes readers feel like they can’t figure out what the truth is. And I would speculate that this attitude may lead people to tune out politics entirely, or to be more accepting of dishonesty by politicians.”
Yup. Journalists are not serving Steve very well.