Monday, March 09, 2009

Good Quality Journalism Sells Newspapers

On Saturday night we celebrated my nephew's birthday at Pic Nic on Queen St. East. I won't tell you how many years we were celebrating ... let's just say that I remember babysitting Mark when I was 18 years old. He's old enough to fend for himself (on most days).

We got to discussing science journalism—he reads my blog. Mark was defending (poorly ) the idea that newspapers, TV, etc. are profit-making companies and, consequently, it is unreasonable to expect them to be truthful and accurate. Sensationalism sells. I was defending the idea that telling the truth about science isn't necessarily going to hurt profits. Accurate science can be just as exciting as gross distortions of the truth. Maybe even more exciting.

We had a really fun time discussing the topic, aided, perhaps, by the excellent wine list at the restaurant. I wish I could remember all the points I made. I think some of them were brilliant.

Along comes André Picard of The Globe and Mail to back up my case better than I was able to do on Saturday night. (You lose again, Mark! ) Here's his bio.
André Picard is the public health reporter at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987.

He has received much acclaim for his writing, including the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service Journalism, the Canadian Policy Research Award, the Atkinson Fellowship for Public Policy Research and the Award for Excellence in Women’s Health Reporting. In 2002, he received the Centennial Prize of the Pan-American Health Organization as the top public health reporter in the Americas.
I think we can assume he's an expert on health journalism in the same way that we have experts in science writing.

Does André Picard try and sell papers by sensationalizing topics like vaccination, prescription drugs, complementary medicines and "health" foods?

Let's check out his article in last Thursday's paper: The Internet has changed the nature of scientific debate.
If you read scientific literature and health research with an open mind and still conclude that vaccines are not poisons, that chelation therapy will not cure heart disease, that realigning someone's chakra is not going to clear up a bladder infection, or that strange concoctions of vitamins and minerals cannot cure bipolar disorder - all theories that have pretty broad followings on the Web - then you are dismissed as an agent of an evil empire.

Those who promote these bogus therapies - and often profit from them - will, paradoxically, dismiss you as a paid shill for Big Pharma, oppressive government or some other branch of the devilish military-industrial complex.

Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacologists, biochemists, immunologists, geneticists and journalists are not to be trusted. They are all on the take.

Medical journals that publish peer-reviews research: They are nothing but promotional tools for Big Pharma and researchers are their puppets and profiteers.

So who do you trust?

Well, you depend on chiropractors and Hollywood stars to give you advice about vaccinating your baby; you trust the guy at the health-food store to offer up a sure-fire cure for arthritis; and you take as gospel the e-mail that warns ominously that if new food safety rules are adopted by government, storm troopers will soon be busting down your front door to seize the chamomile tea.

In the world of cyberspace science, the best evidence is anecdote and the more fantastical the claims, the larger the following they seem to garner.
This is an example of honest, skeptical reporting and I think the general public will be just as interested in reading about the exposure of quacks as in reading articles that promote their claims.

In other words, accuracy and the truth can sell newspapers. And the public benefits.

Let's have more of it in the science section.

[Photo Credit: Dr. Louise Nadeau and Mr. André Picard as masters of ceremonies at the 2006 Fifth Annual Canadian Health Research Awards celebration.]

[Hat Tip: Propter hoc: The most sensible thing I’ve read in months and]

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