Editorial Narratives in Science Journalism

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen


effect_smScience journalism is hard to get right. There is the constant struggle to clearly explain one’s topic without over-simplifying or misrepresenting by dumbing-down the details in hopes of communicating better and on the opposite side, explaining the topic in far too great an esoteric technical detail and far above the general understanding of one’s readers.  There have been very few really effective science journalists — and most of them have erred a bit to one side or other of the line between correct science and a “popular science” version of reality.

In the last century or so, there has developed a new problem in science communications and science journalism.  It is the Editorial Narrative — the overriding mandated “story” (an uber-story or story-line) set by the editor or editors of a newspaper, magazine, news outlet or scientific journal.

One might be tempted to think that in Science Journalism, this just means that the Editors are naturally biased towards the consensus view of various topics — biased towards the most commonly accepted scientific hypotheses or explanations.  And this is trivially true of almost all publications in science — they tend to steer a wide berth around what they view as crackpot hypotheses and what seem to them to be just-plain-nutty ideas.  Of course, there are some science news outlets that specialize in popularizing these sticky-edge ideas — and some of them are just fun to read — like the original early Popular Science Magazine which was, and still is,  a mix of serious reporting about new breakthroughs and  coverage of neat but very unlikely ideas [I am still waiting for delivery of my freezer-sized home atomic energy generator supplying unlimited-electricity].

But that is not what I mean here as “Editorial Narratives”.  I’ll make a first brush attempt a working definition:

Editorial Narrative:  A mandated set of guidelines for the overriding storyline for any news item concerning a specified topic, including required statements, conclusions and intentional slanting towards a particular preferred viewpoint. A statement from the Editors of “How this topic is to be presented.”

One ex-New York Times journalist wrote in November 2016:

It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse [of that at the LA Times]. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”

What he is talking about is editorial mandates — rough outlines — of how journalists were to spin stories — about race, about police killings, about immigrants, about gender politics, about the new federal administration… well, about most everything.  The result in some cases is what at first appears as “bias” but it is more than that. [If you are unsure of what political bias looks like, see the front page of the NY Times or the Washington Post any day of the week.]

I would like to be able to say that this couldn’t possibly be true of the Science section — or could it?  Many readers here and others skeptical of the IPCC-version-consensus on Climate think that it could.

But surely, you ask — not in general, not in other science topics?   I’m afraid that it is true — the Science section, the Health Section, the Medical News section — all of these news desks have editors in charge of them and — at least reportedly at the NY Times —  they set pre-determined agendas — editorially mandated narratives — for science topics.

Here’s the latest example — intentionally selected because it is not about Climate Science:

“The New York Times has tapped Celia Dugger to oversee its health care coverage.

Dugger has been with the Times since 1991. She most recently served as science editor, a role she’ll continue to hold.

In a note to staffers, Times executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn laid out the details of Dugger’s role:

Health reporters from Business Day, National and Science will join together to form a team reporting to Celia. She will also work with reporters covering health issues and their editors in the Washington bureau, The Upshot and across the newsroom. She will be expanding her team in the coming months. Well will also report to Celia, but will remain a self-contained operation that has been a model for the kinds of coverage we want to encourage across the Times.”

Celia Dugger is the Science Editor of the NY Times, and, as of January 2017,  also will oversee “health care coverage” — all health reports, from several desks including Business Day, National, and Science, plus the special health section “Well” will report to Ms. Dugger.  She is one powerful editor with oversight for all of Science and Health reporting, even those in the Upshot section (Upshot combines innovative Graphics and narrative reporting styles to tell stories).

This September, she and her team of health journalists published As Global Obesity Rises, Teasing Apart Its Causes Grows Harder in which they declare:

Today’s article is the first in a series being produced by the paper’s health and science desk. The project examines how the processed food, soda and fast food industries’ increasing focus on markets in the developing world — and the accompanying rise in obesity rates and weight-related illnesses — is playing out around the globe.

The idea had long been on the mind of Celia Dugger, The Times’s health and science editor. For several years, she had been filing away news stories and journal articles that touched on what seemed to be a growing trend. “It just seemed stunning to me,” Ms. Dugger said. “It was a huge problem and a fascinating one to try and understand.” Her hunch was confirmed in June, when a new study showed that 10 percent of the world’s population now has a body mass index, or B.M.I., of 30 or higher, the threshold many public health experts say qualifies as obesity.

But it was clear that a story of this scale, driven largely by an economic and cultural transformation of the global food system, couldn’t be understood solely through a scientific lens.

Brazil was a good place to start. Companies there have been persuading local farmers to cultivate the soybeans and sugar cane that form the basis of much processed food. Conglomerates like Nestlé have aggressively marketed those products, and over the past decade the percentage of people with obesity has nearly doubled.

….taken as a whole these narratives are meant to illuminate what amounts to no less than a new global food order, and a new health crisis.

[emphasis mine – kh ]

Celia Dugger thus establishes an Editorial Narrative for the series, and for all health-related journalism at the NY Times, along the lines of;

“The processed food, soda and fast food industries’ increasing focus on markets in the developing world is causing the rise in obesity rates and weight-related illnesses.” 

This is not a rare opinion — it is one of the mainstay talking points of anti-corporatists of all stripes.  It just doesn’t happen to be supported by any Science — a point which even Dugger at the NY Times admits.    It is just an opinion and it is based on simplistic time-coincident correlation.

The NY Times series “Planet Fat” has the url that ends “series/obesity-epidemic” and is a series that is written entirely in the quasi-journalistic style called “narrative journalism” (an unfortunate coincidence of terms) — which is basically instead of the journalist reporting Who What When Where Why — the journalists tells the story of their often emotional investigation, reports conversations, and feelings and personal anecdotes and “is defined as creative non-fiction that contains accurate, well-researched information.”

Narrative Journalism, creative non-fiction, unfortunately lends itself quite readily to the blending of factual information with the desired spin of the mandated Editorial Narrative.

The NY Times’ Planet Fat series is a wonderful illustrative example of how an editorial mandated narrative — the over-story required by the editors of a news outlet — leads to what in today’s media parlance can rightfully called “fake news” — not because the individual facts are faked or not true, but because the news item taken as a whole presents a false representation of reality — because it has been written to support and repeat the Editor’s Narrative regardless of the full range of available facts.

The series has covered stories in India, Malaysia, Columbia, Senegal, Ghana, Mexico and Australia.  All of these countries (with the exception of Australia) are rapidly advancing countries in which there is a rising middle class able to now afford to eat what and as much as they chose.

The very same countries are still very high on the UN’s list of severely malnourished countries.  The most current UN data on India states “In India 44% of children under the age of 5 are underweight. 72% of infants and 52% of married women have anaemia. Research has conclusively shown that malnutrition during pregnancy causes the child to have increased risk of future diseases, physical retardation, and reduced cognitive abilities.“ but the Planet Fat article portrays their biggest problem as obesity.  In Malaysia,  UNICEF reports: “Overcoming childhood obesity and malnutrition in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, 7 April 2016 – Malaysia is one of several ASEAN countries facing simultaneous crises of over and under-nutrition, with some children overweight while their peers suffer from stunting and wasting.”  The Times’ report on Senegal blamed obesity there on the arrival of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain, which only arrived six years ago, after relative affluence had begun increasing the weight of the middle classes, doubling obesity rates, since 1980 — while the World Food Program reports: “Senegal suffers from persistently high poverty rates, sitting at 46.7 percent. Overall, 17 percent of people are food insecure, and in some – mostly rural – parts of the country, the prevalence of global acute malnutrition is critical.”  From the Times’ editorial-narrative-influenced reports, the reader comes away thinking that these poor developing countries are overrun with fat, overfed people — while just the opposite is true — they are hotbeds of the under-nourished and poverty-stricken.

[Australia is a different case — maybe I’ll write about their weight problem at another time — but their problem is not sugar as implied by the Times.]

Here is the harm of Editorial Narratives, in graphic form:


Readers here will recognize the symptoms of Editorial Narratives in the biased reporting of Climate Science by nearly all MSM outlets — and most scientific journals.  Clearly the NY Times has a mandated Editorial Narrative for Climate Reporting — the link is it — which is also under Celia Dugger, by the way.

What about journals?  In 2001 we had the The Science of Climate Change: Joint Statement from Royal and National Academies from all over the world, written by all of 63 academics.  These academies control their journals and their editors — who control what gets published.  The American Physical Society issued a statement STATEMENT ON EARTH’S CHANGING CLIMATE (Adopted by Council on November 14, 2015) not as a scientific statement, but a statement of policy. The American Meteorological Society also issued An Information Statement of the American Meteorological Society (Adopted by AMS Council 20 August 2012).  [Notice that the APS and AMS  statements are “adopted by Council” not the membership at large — and thus become guiding principles for the editors of their journals — either as expressed or implied Editorial Narratives.)

When a story — a bit of news, a new journal paper — doesn’t fit the narrative required or desired by the Editors — then there is a problem.  If the news is truly Big News and Important — then the journalist has to do his/her best to report it and somehow slip in enough of his/her editor’s narrative to get it accepted and published.  We see this a lot in climate stories where the article goes along well enough, reporting some new findings, and then, out of nowhere, comes a line like “Of course, this new study does nothing to cast any doubt about the overwhelming evidence for human-induced climate change which is currently threatening the very existence of our planet.”

We saw this in the recently issued EPA finding on glyphosate (Monsanto’s Round-Up) which declared it not to be a human carcinogen.  The news was so far from most MSM’s Editorial Narratives on Monsanto, Round-Up and glyphosate that most MSM journalist simply passed and reported nothing at all!  They just couldn’t modify the reality to fit their Editor’s Narrative — some things can’t be spun that far.

My recent ongoing series on Modern Scientific Controversies exposed a good deal of this behavior in the US press — different news outlets ‘taking sides’ in the controversies — evidence of Editorial Narratives driving the reports.

I do not maintain that all newspapers, news agencies, magazines, journals — all MSM outlets — have expressed, written, Editorial Narratives on the topics of our time. Michael Cieply reported that the New York Times does and that the LA Times doesn’t.   However, I know from my own work experience that superiors can have strong opinions and expect their workers to reflect those opinions in their work.  I have not been a newspaper journalist, but I have been a radio news journalist — and Editors and News Directors have the responsibility to help plan coverage and to read and edit stories before publication or going on-air — and in this process, impose their viewpoint on what the story is and how it is to be told.

We see in the example of the NY Times’ Planet Fat series that the “story” was determined before the journalists were even sent out to find a story — they were sent out to specifically find a story matching the Editorial Narrative.  Facts contrary or counter to the narrative are played down or explained away in the series.  The series is a fascinating example of how Editorial Narratives play out in the real world, when the ink hits the paper [digital ink hits the display screen?].  If you have the time and inclination, or are interested in the Obesity Epidemic controversy, read the entire series, with the Editorial Narrative  as laid by Celia Dugger in the premier article (quoted early in this essay) firmly in mind.

In today’s media environment, a major factor in the application of your  Critical Thinking skills will be the awareness of the influence of Editorial Narratives on the news that arrives in your newspaper, on your TV, comes out of your radio or shows up in your In-box.  The concept itself promotes seeking out diversified sources of trusted information — even your trusted information sources can be subject to their own editorial narratives, even if they are manifested only in the choice of which articles, stories or essays appear.  Readers [viewers and listeners] should be aware that they are often seeing only one side of an issue, a result of their own choice of what outlet to read — here, at WUWT, you will not find essays promoting CAGW panic or alarm — that’s not what gets published here. I think that’s a good thing — but I am aware of it, not fooling myself with the idea that reading here keeps me fully informed on the topic.

I’d like to hear [read in comments] your personal views on this topic — and your experience with it.  It is a specific and oft-times hidden type of media bias — it is intentional and cannot [usually] be laid solely on the shoulders of the individual journalist — it is one of his/her burdens, a requirement of continued employment.

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Late Addition:  Just as I signed on to the web to upload this essay, this NY Times’ piece appeared on the National section (U.S.):  Even Sharks Are Freezing to Death: Winter Rages and the Nation ReelsAbout three-fourths of the way through the article giving anecdotes of people stuck in their homes due to excessive snow,  emergency rooms opening up to offer “warm-up rooms” for the homeless and frozen fire trucks,  we find this little paragraph just “stuck in”:

“While scientists routinely find themselves explaining that day-to-day weather patterns are not the same as long-term climate trends, they also widely agree that human-caused climate change is exacerbating extreme weather.”

Editorial Narrative?

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[Personal Aside: In the interest of disclosure, I will admit that I had to quit one job, in what can euphemistically be called “corporate intelligence”,  when my immediate superior informed me that her superiors insisted that I change the conclusions of an important investigative report I had written.  I couldn’t, I wouldn’t and I left several weeks later. There had been a “required narrative” in place that I hadn’t been aware of.  Five years later, my immediate superior searched me out, telephoned me, and said “You were right.” — nothing else, just that. ]

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Author’s Comment Policy:

If we have journalists reading here, I’d like to hear your personal experiences on the topic of Editorial Narratives and their equivalents in your field.  You can count on the anonymity of the Web to obscure your identity.

What do you think?  Share your views and opinions — Do news organizations have Editorial Narratives?  Do they enforce them?  Does it affect the news and views they publish or broadcast?  Have you noticed any obvious examples recently?

Remember, if you want me to respond specifically to a question or comment, address it to “Kip…” so I am sure to see it.

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via Watts Up With That?


December 30, 2017 at 08:00AM

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