I’d like to see the whole phrase “fake news” taken out of the discussion

Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, insists: “Even if science is under attack, we have to continue tell our stories and we have to get them right, do our homework, and really understand what is going on.”

«We are under attack, so we have to get it absolutely right.» Deborah Blum, Knight Science Journalism Program, MIT

«I’d like to see the whole phrase “fake news” taken out of the discussion»: Deborah Blum is quite trenchant. Speaking in the Cambridge office where she directs the Knight Science Journalism Program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she makes it immediately clear that she prefers not to frame the discussion starting from that expression. «It has too many meanings, and in some cases it’s almost meaningless. It’s actually used by a faction as a weapon against good journalism, responsible reporting, well-sourced stories. You just whip out “fake news” to discredit it with no evidence that it’s fake».

Attack on well-reported stories

One of the main culprits according to Blum, who in 1992 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a series on the complex ethical and moral questions surrounding primate research, is the political propaganda: «The president and his ilk use the term “fake news” and “failing media” not to describe just the fraudulent, totally made-up stories, which have historically always been there but are a small minority, but rather to attack well reported stories that they don’t like.»

«For a certain set of people it is a signal not to trust reality. It’s code word to say ‘don’t trust this, don’t believe this: believe my version of reality’… And so it fosters distrust in people who in most cases are working to tell the truth. It allows you to try to manipulate the people that you perceive are the sheep who are going to follow you. And it fosters exactly the kind of situations in which we see journalists attacked and perceived as the enemy».

Reporter arrested

This recently happened in the United States also to science journalists covering the debate on proposed changes to the healthcare laws, who were arrested just for asking questions: «The social media can put people on the spot and occasionally make things right, but the bottom line is that it is a very powerful amplifier, especially of outrage. It’s not nuanced» continues Blum, who recently reacted to the online outrage by digging deep into the story that caused the arrest of the reporter: «I did an essay for Undark [the online magazine of the Knight program] on domestic violence and the proposed changes to the healthcare law: I only quoted two people, but I talked to ten, to make sure that I got the story right».

In the end, she concluded that the suspicion raised by veteran health reporter Dan Heyman – that domestic violence could in the future be considered by American health insurers a “pre-existing condition”, making insurances more expensive or totally impossible for victims – is not justified, but nevertheless, she wrote, «behind Heyman’s one question stands a history of discrimination against survivors of abuse, and the potential for its return».

«I’ve been a journalist a long time and nobody in their right mind stands up and says that journalism is perfect, we never make mistakes, we always handle stories perfectly, we are never fooled… all of that would be ridiculous. Journalism is, like science, a human enterprise, so you are going to see people make what I am going to call ‘honest mistakes’. Then sometimes news is more than just exaggerated or poorly reported, and there are – again that’s a minority – stories that are just fraudulent, where facts are just made up, with zero evidence.»

Journalism, science and the US President

«Some of these fictionalized stories are deliberately spread around Facebook and shared millions of times, and you can se the same kind of amplification on Twitter, that moves even faster with no vetting of the information. Our own President would describe climate change as “fake news”, a term that this administration would apply not only to journalism but to science».

Journalists should resist to pressures, whatever the side they come from: «Since science is now under attack, you can feel at this moment very pressured to not write stories that are destructive about science. We still do it, because our business is to honestly tell those stories. More and more, science is not performed up to the standards and more competition for funding might make the situation even harder. Science has not done a great job at policing itself, and honest reporting of human failings is part of the self-correcting mechanism.»

Undermining journalism

«Some scientists perceive that some of this investigative science journalism is part of the attack on science but they are wrong: you have to light this up and then correct it. Everything grows better in the light. If we look away, if we don’t tell these stories honestly, if we don’t illuminate these problems so people can see them and try to fix them we do no one any favors. We have to tell those stories and we have to get them right, do our homework, and really understand what is going on. Over-research, if we need to, so that when we do report these stories we do get them absolutely right.»

«We are also under attack right now, so there is extra pressure on us to be really careful about getting it right so that we don’t undermine our own credibility at a time when people who don’t love journalism are trying to undermine it anyway. It’s important».

Deborah Blum is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As science reporter for the Sacramento Bee she won the Pulitzer in 1992 for a series of articles on ethical issues in primate research. Blum is president of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and a member of the Committee on Public Understanding of Science and Technology of the AAAS. Some of her award-winning books are: Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (Perseus), Sex on the Brain (Penguin), The Monkey Wars (Oxford University Press). She is coeditor of a Field Guide for Science Writers (Oxford University Press, 1997).

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