Why there has never been a better time to trust journalism

Those times are gone.
Those times are gone.
Image: IGPO/Wikimedia
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The polemic “Why you can’t trust journalism” should have given every journalist pause for thought. It certainly made me pause. But a reanalysis of the facts—something the author of the polemic, Felix Salmon, recommends that others should do often—brings me to the exact opposite conclusion.

Salmon’s argument is an easy one to make. It can be encapsulated in one sentence: Science and journalism are both pursuits to find the “truth,” but journalism fails so much more often that it’s not worth trusting it.

But this argument is worth refuting because Salmon confuses the true role of journalism and ignores the deficits of science. As a scientist-turned journalist, I know that such damning remarks contribute to the low standing journalists have among other professions. And unfairly so. Let me explain.

The true role of journalism

Salmon’s main complaint is that often journalistic scoops or investigative exposés do not live up to the hype. Often the truth is messier than the original story made it out to be.

Take the recent example of the New York Times’ story on the exploitation of nail salon workers in New York. The story had the kind of impact many journalists dream of. It was read 5 million times. Soon after publication, New York’s governor ordered an investigation into nail salons. And a few weeks ago, the state even passed a law to keep such exploitation in check.

However, when Richard Bernstein of New York Review of Books, who co-owns nail salons, tried to independently verify the claim of “rampant exploitation” afflicting the “vast majority” of thousands of nail salons in New York, he failed. The “rampant exploitation” was restricted to mostly undocumented workers and wasn’t true for the “vast majority” of nail salons. (In a rebuttal, the NYT has stuck by its story and so has Bernstein in his reply to the rebuttal.)

In journalism, as Salmon puts it, “You’re only getting a single problematic sliver of the truth.”

Journalists don’t always have the time or resources to apply the scientific method. So it should be no surprise that their investigations are often full of holes. However, that does not mean you shouldn’t trust journalism. That sliver of truth can often be enough to expose flaws within the whole system, and the journalist’s job then is more that of an enabler of truth.

Don’t crush them all

Unlike science, which is a single-minded pursuit of the truth, journalism does many things. It informs, entertains, analyzes, philosophizes, contextualizes, and, yes, pursues the truth, all for an audience that is waiting to know what is happening in the world.

While a lot of the stuff people read in news may never benefit them, some of it does. If nothing else, as we were taught in school, journalism is necessary for a well-functioning democracy. Science might make a society better in some ways, but it is not necessary for the society to function properly.

Journalism provides a service, and the service has a market. At a dinner table you are unlikely to hear discussion about an academic paper (unless you are a neuroscientist at a conference). You are more likely to be talking about daily affairs or a surprising discovery.

If there is any pursuance of truth that journalism succeeds in, it is done at a pace that is unseen in academia. In fact, many choose to become journalists because they cannot bear the pace at which academia uncovers the “truth” or definitively “understands” the world.

For instance, a New York Magazine story, which highlighted the issues faced by the many rape victims of Bill Cosby, spurred a conversation that an academic can not even dream of (definitely not without the help of journalists). The sophisticated discussions around transgender issues that Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and story enabled wouldn’t be possible because of an academic journal’s cover and study.

The pace at which journalists pursue truths opens them up to failing more than a patient scientist would. But then the impact of the failures of a journalist may never be as high. For instance, the worst thing that happened in the aftermath of the NYT nail salon exposé is that a more nuanced story emerged.

The failures of scientists, on the other hand, are greater.

Why trust scientists?

In the last 70 years, when modern academic research took root, the number of scientists has ballooned from less than 1 million to more than 60 million. With this growth has come increased competition, where “publish or perish” has become the academic motto.

The simple idea of “trust, but verify,” which has underpinned science all these years, is being eroded. A researcher working on data from “landmark” cancer trials, which offered completely new approaches to treating cancer, could only replicate six out of 53.

Replicating a study is an expensive endeavor, and thus may not be feasible for each scientific study. However, a reanalysis of the same data should be cheap and done often. And, yet, among many thousands of randomized-controlled trials—the gold standard of evidence—merely 37 trials have been reanalyzed. What should be more worrying is that, in at least a third of the reanalysis, the take-home message of the trial had shifted.

The worst part of science’s failure is that the perpetrators are rarely punished. Plagiarism and fabrication trouble science, too. According to a 2005 study, one in three US scientists admit to having faked data or dropped suspect data points. While some scientists do get caught, many probably don’t because of the lack of incentives for scientists to replicate or reanalyze others studies. The study warned that “because attention is focused on high-profile, serious cases, a broader threat from more  minor deeds is being missed.”

The strengths of journalism

Trust in science is important, because issues such as climate change require global consensus of action. However, in trying to protect scientists, we are also creating a culture that is starting to abuse its privileges.

In such situations, journalists probably fare better. Apart from politicians and business leaders, few professionals get publicly scrutinized as much as journalists. Take the fall of science journalist Jonah Lehrer, who had to resign from the New Yorker and had his books pulled from stores because he was caught fabricating quotes and plagiarizing.

When journalism can cause deaths, such as the 1990s anti-vaccination row that followed the news stories of a study that mistakenly drew a link between MMR vaccines and autism based on 12 children’s clinical anecdotes, it spurs conversations about how to fix the flaws in a system to stop publication of misinformation. The result, at least in the UK where the story received maximum press, was the formation of the Science Media Center that would help science journalists cover the subject better.

Where Salmon is right is that journalists rarely spend the effort of re-reporting—that is, going through source material, interviewing those quoted—and don’t often share their data for other journalists to reanalyze. More can be done on that front, and that is happening.

Many journalistic upstarts, such the Guardian’s Data blog, NYT’s Upshot or Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight have data at the heart of their journalism, and they are sharing their data and methods openly. (Even Quartz’s recently launched charts-only site, Atlas, allows anyone to download the data behind the charts.)

Both new and old organizations are finally embracing the open web. Few online publications now actively choose not to link to the source material. And such practices have proved to be a boon. The internet has given the power to anyone who wants to become a journalist—or refute the work of a journalist. The rise of social media has given these journalistic works and refutations a platform, if indeed they are worthy.

The issue of trust

In the end, trust is a matter of choice. A true skeptic should not trust anything without supporting evidence. But a true skeptic would live a debilitating life, and normal people need to be able to trust something to get on with their lives.

Journalism has come a long way in the last 200 years. The methods journalists apply today are more sophisticated and more transparent than they have ever been. And unlike 20 years ago, when every word published in the New York Times was considered the truth because there was no way for ordinary citizens verify it, we live in an age where journalism is not limited to journalists and verification is not limited to fact-checkers.

We trust science so highly because broadly speaking scientists have been right more often than wrong. I believe an empirical record of journalism might show that journalists, too, have been more right than wrong. And that is why, as a former scientist, I say there has never been a better time to trust journalism.