“All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.”
Will Rogers said that roughly 100 years ago and it’s amazing how little things have changed. This is not to impugn the profession of journalism but to merely state the obvious. Facts, while stubborn, are often difficult to identify and we tend to hold most closely those opinions we falsely believe are objective truth. Journalists are no more immune to this than anyone else.
Nowhere is this more obvious than reporting on science and religion. This is largely due to a lack of journalists trained in either discipline. Networks and news organizations may have one reporter assigned to those areas who may or may not have advanced training. And there’s usually only a single voice, with few competing voices. Dr Sanjay Gupta of CNN is, by all appearances, a perfectly competent reporter and (I presume) physician, but one man cannot speak for an entire profession.
None of this terribly matters under most circumstances, but April 2020 is hardly most circumstances. For one thing, it’s 4/20 all month, a fact that has largely been ignored on social media. (I mean, honestly… this will not happen again for another 100 years!) Instead, we’ve been fixated on COVID-19 and a global pandemic. Of course, fixated does not mean informed and most of us know precious little. Were Rogers alive today, he might say, “all I know is what I read on Facebook”.
If we rely on media and ad hoc panels of “experts” convened on a studio set or via Skype, we might get the impression that there are a lot of knowns. To the contrary, the only things we know are what’s already happened. The rest fall somewhere between “almost certain” and “a definite maybe”.
And here’s the rub: science deals with ever changing data. We observe, assess, conclude, repeat. As often as not, we get new data to supersede or contradict the previous set. Research scientists are generally pretty good at this and are comfortable with the process. They generally report results with nuance and are willing to modify their previous conclusions in the light of a new set of results.
The media, on the other hand, while well meaning, are horrible at it. They don’t have time for nuance and many of them wouldn’t understand it if they did. The headline doesn’t have room for the fine print and the news reader, whose chief qualifications are they are good looking and articulate, reports on hard numbers they and the public understand. The number of cases. The body count. Possible conflicts of interest amongst decision makers. (Conspiracy theories are always interesting and interesting means ratings or web hits).
Print media is better, but not by much. Editors know attention spans are short, so a single article that takes 10 minutes to consume won’t be read, but two 5 minute articles will. Lost in the removed 5 minutes of content is much of the nuance, the details that reveal the hard facts are a bit softer than they first appear.
Thus, the public tend to distrust both the media and science. I don’t really believe it’s bad science as much as it’s bad reporting of science. And all we know is what we read in the papers. And that becomes the alibi for our ignorance.