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Labelling denial

The recent uproar over measles outbreaks in Canada and the U.S. has coughed up an unexpected culprit: the media itself.

News outlets have been quick to espouse pleas for parents to vaccinate their children, but it is often the media that gives initial credence to faulty science and fraudsters in the first place.

It highlights an oft-mentioned but rarely addressed deficiency in modern journalism - that of false equivalence.

It is, in a way, the opposite of how things worked in the old days. In the past, society tended to appoint a handful of authority figures as sole guardians of accurate information, be they health officials, politicians or military generals.

These days, everyone's an expert.

The measles scare was not entirely the media's fault. The study that precipitated it was published in a leading medical journal, after all. But the horse had been let out of the barn. Even as evidence mounted against the research findings, many news outlets continued to treat it as a "debate."

The same can be said for climate change.

Just before Christmas, an appeal to media - signed by 50 scientists and self-described skeptics - asked journalists not to refer to those who dogmatically reject climate science as "skeptics."

A subsequent effort to gain support for the cause garnered a further 20,000 signatures.

"We are skeptics who have devoted much of our careers to practising and promoting scientific skepticism," the letter declares. "We ask that journalists use more care when reporting on those who reject climate science, and hold to the principles of truth in labelling. Please stop using the word 'skeptic' to describe deniers."

It smacks a little of policing language, but the argument is compelling.

"By perpetrating this misnomer, journalists have granted undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry."

The letter, composed by a group called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, alludes to the well-established fact that most deniers are funded in some way by the carbon industry.

In fact, one high-profile denier was exposed last week. Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg had thus far eluded links to the carbon money trail, but a investigation turned up a $200,000 grant to his Copenhagen Consensus Center from the right-wing Paul E. Singer Foundation in the U.S. It represented a third of the centre's total donations for the year 2013.

It's difficult to combat the effect of so many paid hacks muddying the waters of climate science. And perhaps dictating what language journalists should use is not the most diplomatic way of going about it.

But at the very least, it should not be too much to expect the media to separate the wheat from the chaff as best it can.

We all need to do a better job.

Reprinted from The Telegram

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