Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ed Yong on Journalistic Ethics

This is one of the posts I linked to in my previous post on the arsenicated bacteria fiasco. It deserves another link for what Ed Yong says at the end:

For my part, I wanted to think about my own handling of the story, especially because I’ve been criticised on Twitter for dropping the ball on it. I don’t actually disagree. [...]

... I tried to quell the hype around the study as best I could. I had the paper and I think that what I wrote was a fair representation of it. But, of course, that’s not necessarily enough. I’ve argued before that journalists should not be merely messengers – we should make the best possible efforts to cut through what’s being said in an attempt to uncover what’s actually true. Arguably, that didn’t happen although to clarify, I am not saying that the paper is rubbish or untrue. [...]

... On Twitter, my response was that we should expect people to make reasonable efforts to uncover truth and be skeptical, while appreciating that people can and will make mistakes.

So for me, it comes down to this: did I do enough? I was certainly cautious. I said that “there is room for doubt” and I brought up the fact that the arsenic-loving bacteria still contain measurable levels of phosphorus. But I didn’t run the paper past other sources for comment, which I typically do ... for stories that contain extraordinary claims. There was certainly plenty of time to do so here and while there were various reasons that I didn’t, the bottom line is that I could have done more. That doesn’t always help, of course, but it was an important missed step. A lesson for next time.

... I do believe that it you’re going to try to hold your profession to a higher standard, you have to be honest and open when you’ve made mistakes yourself. I also think that if you cover a story that turns out to be a bit dodgy, you have a certain responsibility in covering the follow-up. Hence, this post. [All the links, except one, have been stripped in the excerpt].