science journalism denialism

From anti-vaxxers to climate deniers to a general simmering scepticism of science, denialism in all its forms is everywhere. Crikey is presenting a four-part series on how the seeds of doubt are planted and how they blossom through media and politics. Read the first two parts here.

The media plays an undeniable role in sharing and promoting denialist theories. Yesterday Crikey looked at how much influence opinion writers and commentators have over public opinion, but the news pages play a role too — specifically with the decline of specialist reporters covering science and health.

Specialist reporting has been one of the most significant casualties in an increasingly fragmented news media market. Few Australian news outlets have dedicated science reporters anymore, leaving general reporters to cover science and health news. Experts say that the lack of knowledge makes it easier for denialist theories and bad science to make it into the news pages.

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Dr Rod Lamberts, deputy director at ANU’s Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, tells Crikey there is more science reportage online than ever before, but the number of dedicated science journalists on staff at major media outlets has dropped. “It’s rare to see a journalist with a science background now,” he says. “There is a lot out there from science communicator types, but you have to know where to look.”

Sydney University public health expert Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman, who has been working in the sector since the 1970s, says the changes to the media landscape and the rise of social media also play a factor. 

“When I started, if you read something in a newspaper which was obviously wrong, or got the wrong end of the pineapple, there was a convention that you could contact a journalist and you would get the other side printed, or you could use the vehicle of the letters to the editor to correct the record,” he says. “These conventions are now not as strong as they used to be.”

“One of the [other] problems is that journalism now is a kind of revolving door now,” he says. “In the early days, if you dealt with someone who was a health or medical writer, they were often around for years, and often they came from a scientific background themselves, with a science degree. They brought that kind of disciplined interrogation and level of understanding.”

The journalists that do end up writing about science and health, Chapman says, are under increasing pressure to grab readers and work quickly. “It’s driven by the headline now, like finding a breakthrough, or the orthodoxy found to be wrong, or daring scientists and mavericks.”

And that lack of science knowledge means it’s easier for inaccuracies, myths and denialist theories to get through to publication.

Sydney Nursing School associate professor Julie Leask says that while there was very high support for vaccination in Australia, a lack of expertise meant that even pro-vaccination news reports could be unhelpful in the way they address misinformation.

“Specialist journalists are a threatened species, and that is a risk,” she says. “A major news outlet might want to generally debunk myths about vaccination, but sometimes they put out this piece which quotes the myth up-front. The evidence says that’s a bad way to debunk myths … There is plenty of pro-vaccination reportage, and it’s more positive than ever, but sometimes so stridently positive that it gets key information wrong.”

Leask says that during the avian flu scare, for example, specialist reporters were shown to have a more realistic notion of what a pandemic could mean because they had a better basic knowledge.

“Specialist reporters have a greater ability to craft stories with a balance between the news interest and the quality and nuance of the science behind it. Mainstream journalists are smart, capable people but might not have the medical knowledge to underscore their reporting on medical and health stories.”

Leask says science journalists are also equipped better to distinguish between the contacts they use to speak to on specific topics. “If you’re a generalist, and you’re doing a medical story, you may consult general medical expertise without detailed knowledge on that topic or occasionally, a source who misinforms. There are huge demands on journalists now, and if they don’t have access or the knowledge of the right sources, they can get things wrong.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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