Here’s an interesting Slate piece questioning how journalists should treat dissent from a “consensus” view, based on a similarly-themed editorial in the Columbia Journalism Review and with special attention paid to global warming.
Essentially, the challenge is that journalists often see themselves as defenders of the little guy or the untold story, but it seems intuitive to many journalists that some ideas are so patently “false” that they don’t deserve sunlight. But on the other hand, how certain are we about the truth, and if it is even possible to achieve certainty then who gets to decide? Slate writer Ron Rosembaum argues in favor of caution:
Faced with conflicting studies, [CJR writer Cristine Russell] tells us, “scientists look for consistency among several reports before concluding something is true.” This is, frankly, a misunderstanding or misstating of the way science works.
She seems to be confusing consensus among scientists and scientific truth. They are two different things. The history of science repeatedly shows a “consensus” being overturned by an unexpected truth that dissents from the consensus. Scientific truth has continued to evolve, often in unexpected ways, and scientific consensus always remains “falsifiable,” to use Karl Popper’s phrase, one any science reporter should be familiar with. All the more reason for reporting on scientific dissent, one would think. Yet when I read her description of how science proceeds, it seems to me she is suggesting science proceeds by a vote: Whoever who has the greatest number of consistent papers—papers that agree with him or her—”wins.” As in, has the Truth.
In fact, the history of science frequently demonstrates that science proceeds when contradictory—dissenting—studies provoke more studies, encourage rethinking rather than being marginalized by “the consensus” or the “consistency” of previous reports.
The piece discusses different ways journalists ought to handle the situation, and in particular whether the “consensus view” always deserves the last word. One possibility is to proceed as though the debate is over and deny “nationally known skeptics” any hearing at all. Another is to grant dissenters time, but avoid equal time in favor of a clear majority hearing to the “correct way to think.” A third option is to lean toward equal time for dissenting viewpoints when possible.
I suppose the best corrective mechanism here is a strong diversity of media sources on the part of the consumer. Even if I have a preference for the perspective in newspaper/channel/blog A, it’s advantageous for me to give serious consideration to the positions of newspaper/channel/blog B. It’s not a solution, and it places quite a burden on the consumer, but short of some sort of weird massive regulation of the media industry I’m not sure what else to actually do about the problem.
But even as I oppose a top-down solution, I do think the journalist bears a significant burden to do more than just believe they’re checking their biases at the door. One reason major news sources are consistently biased is because of a tendency we all have to surround ourselves with like-minded people and then assume we’re not biased because we’re not an outlier. It seems as though journalists should rely heavily on their professional training (for those who bothered to get any) and on their intellectual toolkits, and to be extremely careful about attributing mythical powers to “The Government” or “The People” or “The Global Consensus” or “We” or “They.” (Topic for another day: ambiguous pronouns are not a good journalist’s friend, even if they do help Obama’s poll numbers.)
Journalists also seem under pressure to find a victim and a villain to compose a good story, which sets up a huge clash between good reporting and our mental models. Why would any journalist intentionally write a story that presents their preferred villain as the marginalized perspective or their preferred victim as the position of unsettled righteousness? And as a relevant aside, when did we start believing that the “consensus view” is the little guy in need of all the protection the Fourth Estate can muster?
I do personally believe that media bias, regardless of its political or ideological roots, is extremely concerning. But what worries me even more is consensus bias because of its tendency to mask the unseen and stifle the true little guy: the remarkable ideas and innovations and discoveries that require competition on an open and equal playing field in order to have a chance at rising to the top.