Shoddy TV science coverage

CNN’s Gupta promises cancer cure, while PBS’s Michels delivers false balance on climate

It’s been a bad week and a half for coverage of science on television. Stories about cancer at CNN and climate change at PBS NewsHour offered lessons in what not to do when chasing or promoting a scoop. Thankfully, critics quickly took the stations to school. Here’s what they taught them.

The cure

The promise of a cure for cancer has lured many journalists that should know better into holding out false hope to the millions of Americans afflicted by the disease every year. Last Friday, it was Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s turn. The CNN correspondent sent a deplorable tweet to his 1.5 millions followers, which announced:

BREAKING cure for #cancer close says md anderson. plan to “drastically reduce” cases & deaths n 5yrs! im reporting excl details all day @cnn

The tweet, and the five-minute report on-air report behind it, were based on a press release from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, which announced the launched of its so-called “Moon Shot Program,” which it billed as “an unprecedented effort to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths.”

But the problems with Gupta’s tweet and CNN report were manifold,’s Gary Schwitzer pointed out:

We realize that Gupta wasn’t trained as a journalist, and it shows. “Breaking news” is a term usually reserved for events that have just happened—a train wreck, a Supreme Court decision or the like… And look at the [on-air report] to see how “exclusive” is used. EXCLUSIVE: CENTER AIMS TO CUT CANCER DEATHS. What about all the other research at all the other cancer centers aiming to do the same thing?

But of course, “it’s the simplistic statement that a ‘cure for cancer (is) close’ that is most troublesome,” wrote Schwitzer, who asked one the site’s story reviewers, journalist Andrew Holtz, to review Gupta’s reporting. While MD Anderson’s new program centers on “applying existing knowledge” about cancer treatment, Holtz found, most people could be forgiven for thinking it’s about new discoveries:

Viewers who have extensive knowledge of cancer prevention and treatment can discern what I think is the intended message of this story: that boosting public health programs, addressing health behaviors, dealing with social and environmental factors and then also improving the performance of the US health care system could help dramatically delay the age at which cancer is likely to strike. But what message does the average viewer get from Gupta’s potpourri of references to experimental and conventional approaches? Probably a foggy sense of something new just around the corner… just around the corner where it was yesterday and last year and where it will be tomorrow and next year…

“This could be the worst case of hyping cancer cures I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot,” wrote the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn.

Indeed, Gupta, who almost became the nation’s Surgeon General, should be ashamed of himself, and CNN needs to take far greater care with its reporting in the future.

Balance as bias

In the early years of climate-change reporting, from the 1990s until about 2004, journalists had a tendency to quote sources who denied the existence of man-made climate change in equal proportion to climate scientists who affirmed it, despite the fact that the latter comprised an overwhelming majority.

It was a problem that came to be known as “balance as bias,” and thankfully it has receded significantly in the last eight years or so. It is still alive and well at places like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal opinion pages, but critics have come to expect better of outlets like PBS NewsHour, where false balance reared its ugly head on September 17, to the surprise and consternation of many viewers.

It started with a blog post from longtime correspondent Spencer Michels, which featured an interview with Anthony Watts, who runs one of most popular climate-skepticism blogs on the Web. For almost ten minutes Michels allowed Watts to spout discredited arguments about why the “global warming crowd oversells its message,” as the atrocious headline put it.

Bud Ward at Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media quickly joined a chorus of other levelheaded critics when he observed that:

Michels clearly seemed out of his depth in dealing with specific Watts’s points, in particular those dealing with potential urban heat island effects and with what Watts, unsurprisingly, criticized as inappropriate siting of temperature stations. Michels did not reply to or challenge either of Watts’ questionable claims on those issues, both of which have been long since rebutted in peer-reviewed journals.

A few hours after Michels’ blog post appeared online, the NewsHour aired a roughly ten minute segment that focused on UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller’s self-styled “conversion” from climate skeptic to adherent of the longstanding scientific consensus on the matter. As I wrote in August, Muller’s turnaround basically amounts to a publicity stunt that persuaded the press to give him an undue amount of coverage, but that wasn’t the main problem Michels’ stale report. The problem was the inclusion of Watts, and the fact that Michels repeatedly referred to those who accept climate science as “believers,” implying that their acceptance is based on faith rather than fact.

Following an uproar from disappointed viewers, both Michels and Hari Sreenivasan, who oversees the NewsHour’s climate coverage, posted blog items offering weak excuses, which mentioned “different perspectives” and “context,” for why they chose to include Watts. Thankfully, following a petition from Forecast the Facts, a group that advocates for action to address climate change, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler looked into the story as well. While he, too, defended elements of the report and didn’t come down as hard on the NewsHour as he should have, he at least conceded that:

The missteps created by the program and committed on the air and online dominate the reasons why this segment is being most widely viewed as falling short of NewsHour standards. I feel that way as well.

Viewers deserve better than this tepid condemnation, however. For instance, Ward, at the Yale Forum, was right to ask why PBS “did not use veteran science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who NewsHour brought in to cover complex science issues….” According to Ward:

There’s an answer to that question, actually. O’Brien said in a phone interview that he is a freelancer with a contract to do 15 science stories a year for NewsHour … specifically excluding climate science. “I’m not in the loop on climate stories,” O’Brien said, characterizing the recent NewsHour broadcast as “a horrible, horrible thing” that he fears reflects badly both on the program and, indirectly, on himself.

That’s a shame.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,