Thursday, February 17, 2011

AP: Republic of fear

Here's an interesting tale from the Associated Press:

Extreme rainstorms and snowfalls have grown substantially stronger, two studies suggest, with scientists for the first time finding the telltale fingerprints of man-made global warming on downpours that often cause deadly flooding.

Especially when we get to the antepenultimate graf:

... Most of the 10 outside climate experts who reviewed the papers for The Associated Press called the research sound and strong.

Ahem. Excuse me? AP? Ten? I think we could use a little background out here in readerland. What's your standard for the number of "outside experts" who look over peer-reviewed research before the AP dares to move a story about it?

I'm wondering in part because I don't see any sign of this level of diligence elsewhere. I only see one "outside expert" in "Energy drinks dangerous for kids, teens," for example, and she doesn't check in until the American Beverage Association has had its say. We don't seem to have any outside experts at all in "Nearly 10,000 babies suffer crib injuries yearly" (though the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association gets its say). A couple of names in "Drug may slow growth of early prostate cancer" look like outside experts, but neither seems to be commenting on the merits of the study itself.
That's not surprising. American journalism has a long tradition of Getting Both Sides, even when the Other Side is "lighten up; we probably won't kill your kid" or "used responsibly, drinks that combine dog-killing levels of caffeine with high doses of alcohol produce a really entertaining buzz" or "could we just change the subject, please?" And given that researchers -- and university news bureaus -- have an interest in promoting the fun parts of a study and overlooking the "limitations" section, there's nothing wrong with getting a calibration check. But 10 "outside climate experts" is something different. It suggests that the AP has been cowed into submission -- browbeaten by a crowd of paid liars into singing the Fox tune.

I'd prefer it if the AP was a little less timid about the matter, and I'd encourage member papers that used this story to call the AP and ask for a little more objectivity in the reporting of climate science. That entails some responsibility for AP members as well -- specifically, they'll need to tell the occasional irate caller to go pee up a rope. When it comes to reclaiming the craft of journalism, a small start is better than no start at all, and we might as well have some fun while we're starting.


Anonymous Thomas said...

I think Dr Sandler in the prostate cancer story is commenting on the merits of the trial, though it's not very clear.

What's typically annoying about the story, though, is that it takes quite a lot of work if you want to track down the primary source. A bit of searching at the American Society of Clinical Oncology website finds the Genitourinary Cancer conference, and the abstracts are on line. You still have to know to look up the real name of the drug from its brand name if you want to find the abstract.

The conference, like most respectable medical conferences, requires that drugs are referred to by their name rather than brand. Why can't the AP do that too?

9:22 PM, February 18, 2011  
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2:00 AM, February 19, 2011  

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