The latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review contains an excellent piece by Chris Mooney, Blinded By Science: How Balanced Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality. I've been writing about the environment or helping environmental groups tell their stories for almost 15 years now. This is one of the finest pieces I've seen on how and why the media has failed so completely to educate the American public on the massive environmental dangers we face:
"The centrality of the climate change issue to the scientific critique of the press does not arise by accident. Climate change has mind-bogglingly massive ramifications, not only for the future of our carbon-based economy but for the planet itself. Energy interests wishing to stave off action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have a documented history of supporting the small group of scientists who question the human role in causing climate change as well as consciously strategizing about how to sow confusion on the issue and sway journalists.
"In 1998, for instance, John H. Cushman, Jr., of The New York Times exposed an internal American Petroleum Institute memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences. Perhaps most startling, the memo cited a need to recruit and train scientists who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate to participate in media outreach and counter the mainstream scientific view. This seems to signal an awareness that after a while, journalists catch on to the connections between contrarian scientists and industry. But in the meantime, a window of opportunity apparently exists when reporters can be duped by fresh faces.
It may be that the best way to counter this is for the scientists to actively call the media out when they give too much credit to scientists who have not passed the peer review muster, who exist on the fringes. So we who have a clue about science should be vigilant and ready to respond with letters to the editor in all times and places.
Conservation biologists in particular are learning that, when it comes to enacting real policies, science cannot ignore the human elements; "objective science" becomes useless without understanding the broader ramifications of scientific findings. Peer review helps keep science pointed in the right direction; expert review (of non peer journalists) should help steer reporting and policy in the right direction.
Slashdot picked up this story, with a credit to WorldChanging.