The ABC has this week announced that an episode of its Catalyst television program “breached the ABC’s impartiality standards” when it raised concerns about the safety of wireless devices such as mobile phones.
The episode, titled Wi-Fried? and broadcast on February 16 this year, claimed that the radiofrequency (RF) emissions from Wi-Fi was causing health effects ranging from DNA damage to cancer.
Such statements are not mainstream scientific positions, but rather are views that leading health authorities have considered when concluding that there is no evidence that low-level RF, such as that from Wi-Fi, mobile phones or base stations, impairs health.
I was one of many people who raised concerns about the claims in the Catalyst program, writing as part of an expert panel for The Conversation. But there were many other critics of the program including the ABC’s own Media Watch program.
The conduct of the Catalyst team in producing and airing this misinformation was investigated by the ABC’s independent Audience and Consumer Affairs unit. It found that Catalyst breached the relevant editorial standards for accuracy. Specifically, it breached both of the following:
2.1 Make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context; and
2.2 Do not present factual content in a way that will materially mislead the audience. In some cases, this may require appropriate labels or other explanatory information.
It the ABC’s full 31 page report, the unit concluded that:
[…] the findings for accuracy all unduly favour the unorthodox perspective that wireless devices and Wi-Fi pose significant health risks.
It is indeed comforting to see the thorough scrutiny of the “journalism”, and that tangible consequences ensued, but it also raises a number of important issues that I believe are worthy of reflection.
Science journalism should challenge
Perhaps most important is the role of any journalist in science reporting. Here it is important to acknowledge that it is normal for science to get things wrong from time to time. I thoroughly believe that a journalist plays an important role in showing errors in the standard view.
For example, if the standard view was incorrect – that Wi-Fi was indeed dangerous and there was good evidence in support of this – then I would be grateful to have a journalist point this out.
But as we see from the numerous internet perspectives on everything from Wi-Fi and health to alien abductions, in order to inform the audience there is also a strong need for the journalist to provide appropriate balance.
For example, without appropriate consideration of expert opinion, the airing of emotive views (of those who believe they’ve been abducted) may make the claim appear more real.
This was a great failure in the Wi-Fried episode, as unsubstantiated claims were put forward without adequate attention to the scientific consensus (nor evidence as to why the consensus was wrong).
So unless the aim of science journalism was similar to advertising and merely to encourage a particular perspective, it requires great care and objectivity to achieve its objective. If the audience has a more accurate understanding of an issue after the piece, then I think it has achieved an important objective.
The consequences of getting it wrong
As we’ve seen though, science journalism doesn’t always get it right. This is not surprising given that ratings rather than knowledge conveyance is increasingly becoming the metric of journalistic success. But what are the consequences of getting it wrong, and has the ABC done enough to improve its journalism?
In this case Catalyst has clearly shot itself in the foot, reaching beyond good journalism and into sensationalism, and having its reputation damaged in the process.
This is a good outcome as it pressures the ABC to work on improving its internal review mechanisms to re-establish its strong journalism reputation. But I fear that less scrupulous media organisations rely less heavily on such reputations and are less likely to be influenced by such embarrassments.
Further, even given the determination of the Audience and Consumer Affairs unit within the ABC, it is questionable whether the damage can be rectified.
The resource that went into the unit’s enquiry was admirable and very unlikely to be repeated in the vast majority of similar cases. And even if it was it is unlikely that the resultant Catalyst retraction would have the reach and persuasiveness to counter the original misinformation.
We can only hope that this example will serve to encourage other journalists to strive to inform rather than sensationalise, and remind editors of their responsibility to truth.