Science and Law
9th April 2014

Is Media Coverage Unfairly Slanted Against Your Client? CMPA Can Help

ISS recently interviewed author and college professor S. Robert Lichter about his organizations STATS and CMPA and how they can support attorneys litigating cases involving scientific data. Last week we published Part 1 of the interview, which covered STATS. Part 2, which covers CMPA, appears below.

Is Media Coverage Unfairly Slanted Against Your Client? CMPA Can Help

ISS recently interviewed author and college professor S. Robert Lichter about his organizations STATS and CMPA and how they can support attorneys litigating cases involving scientific data. Last week we published Part 1 of the interview, which covered STATS. Part 2, which covers CMPA, appears below.

ISS: Tell us a little about the goal of the CMPA as it relates to science in the media?

RL: CMPA’s original focus was on political news, particularly the endless battles between journalists and politicians over charges of media bias. On any major political controversy, one or the other side (and sometimes both sides) will eventually charge that the media are favoring their opponents instead of reporting fairly.  I set up CMPA to adjudicate these controversies by using social scientific tools like content analysis to systematically and comprehensively evaluate media coverage. And we succeeded in making these debates more rigorous, as both liberals and conservatives regularly cited our studies in support of their positions. But there were limits to the use of our data. You could always argue that one policy or candidate is better than another and therefore deserves better coverage. This is a question of values that can’t be settled scientifically.

Science is different from politics in this respect. There are right and wrong answers, and there are good and bad methods of finding those answers. It may take awhile, but eventually a consensus develops, on which policies and regulations are frequently based.  And good journalism will reflect the thinking of the most knowledgeable experts. But it demonstrably doesn’t, for any number of reasons – journalists don’t understand science, journalists with agendas seek out scientists who agree with them, scientists with agendas seek out journalists to spread their message, while serious scientists don’t want to dumb down their work for journalistic consumption, and so forth.

To document this phenomenon, CMPA started doing studies that contrasted media coverage of a scientific or science policy issue with what the scientific experts think about that issue. This meant pairing our content analysis studies of news coverage with separate studies of scientific opinion. There are several ways to measure the latter: For example, you can look at literature reviews and meta-analyses, you can content analyze a whole body of scientific journal articles to see what views are most likely to make it through the peer review process, and you can actually poll a random sample of scientific experts to find out what the expert community thinks, just as pollsters survey the general public for its views. You can see the implications of this for explaining the public’s misperceptions of health risks. If the experts who get quoted in the media say something at odds with what the entire expert community thinks, it’s not just biased reporting, it’s inaccurate reporting.

For example, for the book Environmental Cancer – A Political Disease? we surveyed both cancer researchers and leaders of environmental organizations on the causes of environmental cancer. Then we analyzed the media coverage. The result was that the scientists differed sharply from the environmentalists, but the media coverage reflected what the environmentalists believed rather than what the scientists believed. In other words, the journalists were listening to (and quoting) scientists who were publicly engaged, which colored their opinions on scientific issues. As a result, the public ended up getting a skewed view of what the science says about environmental causes of cancer.

Once STATS was up and running in the mid-1990’s, it was a simple matter to use CMPA’s social scientific findings of this sort to provide empirical evidence for the STATS analysts’ conclusions. Conversely, the narratives and deep reporting that go into STATS articles enriched CMPA’s statistical data by showing how such discrepancies are reflected in the journalistic treatment of specific issues, such as the health risk that is attributed to particular environmental factors. Because of their explanatory power, we’re doing more and more of these joint projects.

ISS: I was intrigued at your interview of toxicologists back in 2009 related to chemical risk and media coverage. Was there good harmonization between what toxicologists had to say and what the media said they had to say?

RL: Quite the contrary. We surveyed over 900 members of the Society of Toxicology on their thoughts about the nature of chemical risks and the way they are communicated to the public. They gave the media dismal ratings on the most basic scientific concepts you’d need to understand in order to make sense of a study: the ability to distinguish correlation vs. causation, absolute vs. relative risks, and good from bad studies. They also said the media pays far too much attention to the viewpoints of individual scientists as opposed to the weight of evidence.

Finally, they panned a host of individual news organizations, from The New York Times to cable television, for overstating the risks of artificial chemicals. In fact, they rated every mainstream media outlet below Wikipedia in terms of accuracy in reporting chemical risk. It’s a pretty damning indictment when you rate the best professional journalists below a source of information that literally anybody can write for.

ISS: What are the implications of this survey to lawyers trying cases involving allegations of toxic chemical exposures?

RL: Very simply—the public is being told a story in the news media that is at odds with how the experts understand and evaluate chemical risks. Basically, scientists are saying, “Don’t believe what you see in the media.” Knowing this conflict between the expert community and the media would, I assume, be highly relevant to any jury. In addition, you have to sympathize with jurors who try to sort out expert testimony After all, lay people don’t have the specialized knowledge to choose between two experts who present contradictory opinions. So it often comes down to which expert is the better communicator.

When you conduct a comprehensive survey, all this changes. It’s no longer a matter of what this expert says versus what that expert says. It’s what the experts say. The most poised and articulate expert witness is going to have trouble convincing a jury if a scientific survey says that 90 percent of his colleagues disagree with the way he evaluates chemical risks.

ISS: The questions the Center is interested in seem to be related to consensus of the scientific community. This is a concern for our clients that deal with Daubert and Frye challenges. What is the relevance of these surveys to their concerns?

RL: They show that the media is easily carried away by alarmism, and is unable to apply the analytical tools to figure out whether a study is good or bad. The media has a real tendency to promote the people shouting the loudest in a debate, and these people are often pushing science that is controversial at best and flawed at worst.

The constant stream of alarming findings making headlines calls into question the integrity of our regulatory process and raises the pressures on politicians to respond with precautionary approaches to determining risk. The scientists we surveyed overwhelmingly opposed using the precautionary principle as a way of legislating risk; instead, they indicated that more empirical rigor was needed, not less, and that the principle of quantitative risk assessment provided the most reliable findings.

ISS: If a lawyer is interested in determining whether a particular scientific issue has consensus in the scientific community, how should they think about pursuing that question?

RL: I touched on this earlier in discussing CMPA’s methods. A search of journals and standard reference works would lead you to some literature reviews and meta-analyses that provide quick overviews of scholarly thinking on the issue, as well as the scholars who write most frequently on these issues. (Of course, even in these cases, not everyone will agree with the authors’ conclusions. But at least you’re looking at the big picture.) Going a step further, you could do a content analysis of journal abstracts, classifying the conclusions of each article to build up an overall picture of thinking on the issue in which you’re interested.

Ideally, given sufficient time and resources, you could conduct a systematic survey of the members of professional societies that do research in the relevant area. As I mentioned earlier, this is something that we’ve done, and many scholars have thanked us for providing an overview of the overall balance of opinion in their own fields. One of the big problems is that some issues are so specialized, even scientists in closely related fields might not be fully aware of the weight of evidence. Professional societies should be more pro-active in doing these kinds of surveys themselves and publishing the results. This would also be very useful for the public—and a real antidote to the problem of a handful of scientists with vested interests colonizing an issue (or one side of an issue) in the media.

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