Just the facts, please

Blair Hanley Frank

This article was updated on December 20, to clarify the retraction of the Lancet study.

Some things are just wrong. Two plus two, no matter how you figure it, does not equal cheese. So why then do journalists insist upon giving equal weight to people whose opinions are just as wrong?

Here’s an example: I could state, for the record, that George Bridges has a bow tie he made with the pelt of a mink that he killed himself. I honestly doubt that he does. What the president’s office would probably do in that case is release a statement stating unequivocally and emphatically that the president does not own such a bow tie.

Now, if The Pioneer was to run a story based upon the two statements and gave them equal space on the page (following what some call the “equal time doctrine”), it’s possible to construe that as meaning the two statements have equal merit, which is not the case, since I made mine up.

When it comes to reporting on factual questions, there should be no room for error. Of course, on the grand scale of things, a mink bow tie isn’t that big a deal. Where we start to run into problems is when the equal time doctrine gets applied to matters of national importance. Here’s what I mean: if a certain politician from Alaska says that a healthcare bill contains provisions that create “death panels”, it’s our job, as journalists to figure out whether or not they do. The bill, as it stood then, did not contain any such provisions.

As members of the media, we’re responsible for providing the world with what is factually accurate. Reporting what people (especially politicians) say without determining the truth of their statements is a disservice to the public we hope to serve.

Here’s another important case study: the evolution “debate.” In the scientific community, there’s no question as to whether or not the theory of evolution by natural selection is factually correct. Let me say that again: among people who actually know what they’re talking about, there is no question as to whether or not species evolve over time.

The media, by giving credence to people who would rather deny the factual accuracy of a scientific theory that has been proven and re-proven hundreds of times over, is tacitly helping to promote the fallacies these ignoramuses are peddling. This epidemic of journalistic spinelessness has been caused, at least in part, by those who consume news, as well as those of us who report on it. Journalism is, most of the time, a for-profit enterprise, and there has been increasing pressure not to seem “partisan” in reporting stories. Thus, the equal time doctrine. That comes at a cost, sometimes to public well-being.

Consider the idea that vaccines cause autism, as first proposed in a rather shoddily done study published by the British medical journal “Lancet.” That study has since been discredited based on its research methods, as well as years of research that has failed to corroborate the findings of the original study. Furthermore, both “Lancet” and 10 out of 13 of the study’s authors have retracted it. However, that unfortunately has not stopped people from continuing to push that particular explanation.

The reduction in vaccination has, in turn, caused some major public health problems. Vaccines are really good at protecting people, especially kids, from getting nasty, potentially deadly diseases. San Diego is facing a near-epidemic of pertussis (better known as whooping cough) in children because of a lack of vaccination.

Whooping cough is a horrible, highly contagious disease, and the outbreak in San Diego has led to the deaths of at least five infants. That brings me to my bottom line: journalists need to stop pulling punches. If someone is factually wrong, they need to get called on it. It’s a simple solution that will help save lives and our public discourse.