The promotion of ignorance

April 21, 2008

It’s always a tricky business, achieving balance in news reporting.

Sure, some stories are easy – it’s a fire, at a warehouse, so you write about that. Not much balance needed really, just some good pictures and a quote or two.

Most news, however, needs balance. Each reporter brings his or her own bias, each editor has a point of view. For many years I wrote – and indeed crusaded – on the topic of broadband. I decided early on that not only was the topic important to my readers but that I needed to take an editorial stance in favour of one side of the many broadband debates. That is, I sided with unbundling instead of against it. That was an editorial decision and I stuck to it but constantly reviewed the value of that decision. Eventually the mainstream reporting came round to my point of view (even my editor, who once famously asked me “what’s the point of broadband?” and was unconvinced by my argument and who has since gone on to win awards writing about the urgent need for … broadband. But I digress. And gloat) and now everyone writes about broadband without a second thought.

If there’s one journalist I’ve always envied it’s Kim Griggs. She writes about science. She writes about New Zealand. She writes about science in New Zealand and she does it for Wired magazine and the BBC and The Guardian and any number of proper publications. I’d hate her but she writes so very well. I’d hate her for that as well, but what can you do…?

She is pro science. It’s hard not to be, and of course it’s her round so you’d expect her to have a bias towards science.

She also used to write for The Listener and, following the debacle over The Listener’s censorship of another journalist’s blog on the matter (go on, send me a letter as well, I dare you) Kim posted about it to Russell Brown’s Hard News on the matter. I’ll recreate it here – Russell, Kim, let me know if that’s not OK with you and I’ll paraphrase instead.

I was part of a group of four writers who wrote a science column for The Listener for a couple of years. Our idea, promoted to Pamela in the first instance by Marilyn Head, was to provide stories about the abundance of interesting science that is being done in New Zealand. Our hope was that the stories would show the array of different aspects of New Zealand’s science community – there are some great stories out there – but also build up an appreciation of science so that there is an understanding, and critical thought about what science can and can’t do. So that when we debate climate change or nanotechnology or GE or xenotransplantation or the Large Hadron Collider, there can be more light and less heat in our discussions.

We eventually quit – spat the dummy truth to be told – when we were told our stories had an endorsing (of science) tone. This, from a magazine that had run a story about laughter yoga (well written though it was) under the science and health banner.

Seriously – their stories had a tone that implied they were endorsing science.

I really don’t know what to say to that. I’d encourage Pamela the editor to post about it here if it’s not accurate, but my fear is that this is exactly the kind of thing Pamela and the editorial masters at The Listener would say.

It goes beyond dumbing down and becomes something much worse – the promoting of ignorance. Can we really stand by and watch that happen?


7 Responses to “The promotion of ignorance”

  1. Stephen Says:

    OMG. Aiding and abetting the endumbening of discourse.

    We don’t buy the Listener – haven’t for years. Kathy has been bringing it home from work the last few weeks and I can honestly say that while there are a few columnists I still read with pleasure (eg Wichtel) the feature articles are crap. The boomer hippies have ruined the Listener.

  2. Mysterious Dave Mather Says:

    Endorsing science – bad. I can see why the dummy was spat. The editor was lucky that the spat dummy didn’t take her eye out.

    Actually Stephen, in my humble opinion (but it is all I really have), boomer writers are ruining more than just the ‘Listener’. There are a number of boomers in the media, the ones that should be delivering insightful journalism with their seniority and experience, seem to be writing more, about less, and failing to bother to learn about new factors in what look like old equations (like politics). There are other boomers in the media who seem to have been given a voice on the basis that public will recognise their names, so will read their opinions no matter how little proof is offered up with it. This really, really annoys me.

    Which is why one of my major news sources are sites on the internet.

  3. audent Says:

    Shitbags, it’s like the seventh form common room in here… 😉

    My fear is that journalism pays so very poorly in NZ that a full length feature (let’s say 1500 words) will only bring in $600 before tax, rather than say $1500 to $2000 which is not uncommon in the US or Aus (so I’m told). That leads to one of two things – either the journo spends less time on it (what, one or two days?) or they have to have some other form of income (eg sugar daddy) which in my opinion tends to reduce the quality of the work anyway (if it’s a hobby it’s hardly as important to you as a career).

    And there’s always the slight problem of publishers not wanting to acknowledge the internet’s existence whatsoever. I could name names but they like to sue, apparently.

    Still, if nothing else Nicky Watson’s inflated assets aren’t quite the centre of my blog’s universe any longer… sadly she’s being replaced by Pamela Stirling. Sigh.

  4. Mysterious Dave Mather Says:

    Talking about the ‘Listener’, your opinion on that publication’s quality seems to be widespread. Witness the discussion of the ‘Listener’ in the ‘Hard news’ comment thread at:,1060,;jsessionid=7D12795FDED676F09B7F533E50B5F938

    Or however you embed this sort of thing, dang computeration machine.

  5. audent Says:

    Yup, the Hard News thread is where I got that astonishing quote from Kim Griggs. Honestly, I don’t know a single journalist who thinks this is a good thing, including a fair few at APN I’ve spoken to in recent days. They’re appalled by the heavy handed tactics.

  6. […] 18, 2008 I’ve complained before about The Listener, and about its coverage of science in […]

  7. […] 2008-05-18: Apparently another blogger is also having issues with the Listener’s science reporting. « Internet Goracularities: the “corn ethanol hoax” hoax Oops, […]

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