Editorial policies aren’t enough to stop WiFi fear-mongering

After a long and detailed internal review, the ABC’s flagship science program Catalyst has been handed an embarrassing public rebuke for “Wi-Fried“, an episode on the purported health risks of WiFi, which aired earlier this year. This is good to see, but it addresses only half of the problem. An editorial policy is necessary, but insufficient, when it comes to ensuring journalistic coverage of contentious science isn’t creating harm. 

I wrote a bit about how the content in the show was presented in a way that maximises fear:

“[It] served to reinforce falsehoods, which is tragic. The outrage was fully justified. In its current state, the program ought to have been never aired. Demasi argues that [this] is censorship, which is false. It is not censorship to consider the human cost of warnings presented in a format that maximises fear, concern and anxiety, based solely on weak, unreliable scientific evidence”

I saw two problems with the show:

  • it was packed with falsehoods
  • it presented information in a specific format that inspires unjustified fear and anxiety.

The ABC’s internal review only looks at the first factor. This neatly summarises why current-affairs-style investigative journalism mixes so disastrously with the genuinely interesting fuzzy edges of scientific inquiry. Human beings aren’t blank slates when it comes to the way we absorb the outputs of scientific inquiry – we’re guided by heuristics, biases and emotional strings that tug in hundreds of differing directions. Hence the need to consider context, framing and the factors that inspire fear and anxiety when covering these issues.

If ‘Wi-Fried’ had fulfilled the criteria of the ABC’s review, it still would have been misleading – presenting ‘balance’ can simulate controversy when there is none. In fact, half the complaints assessed by the review were found to be within the editorial guidelines (a majority, if you don’t count the finding on the show as a whole):

demasi2

demasi1

The problems I highlighted in my Medium piece focus on the presentation of information in the show. The erroneous goal of ‘balance’ can serve as a cover for the presentation of skewed information (in the case of this hideous chart, quite literally). Thankfully, it’s become wider knowledge that coverage of scientific issues should follow the weight of the evidence – something that’s apparently already in ABC editorial policy. As Michael Lallo wrote at the SMH:

“I can find you some highly-credentialed people – or self-appointed lobby group heads – who claim that vaccines create autism, humans don’t cause climate change, or that non-organic berries make you ill. But why would I? The point isn’t just to “present a different view” or “challenge the science” for the sake of it. Often, it’s not even enough to “present both sides”. This is how fringe climate denialists end up hogging half a newspaper article when the CSIRO publishes concerning new research about global warming. It’s a journalist’s lazy attempt to look “balanced”

To hark back to a darker time (and perhaps a period we’re about to re-enter), this Sunrise segment illustrates ‘false balance’ perfectly:

Unsurprisingly, the ABC’s review has been classified as an attempt at censorship, and Demasi seemingly now considers herself a ‘whistleblower‘.

The sad thing here is that human reactions to new technology are a deeply fascinating issue to explore. An interesting and under-considered narrative of freedom, mistrust, skepticism and anxiety underlies much of the reaction to pervasive and rapidly growing technologies, and it’s worth directing some sympathy to the people who are fearful of new machines.

I suspect the outcome of the review is necessary, but not very constructive. Simulated threats that are presented as invisible, scientifically uncertain and utterly inescapable are greater than the sum of their erroneous parts. This is why phenomena like ‘wind turbine syndrome’ and ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ persist. Something deeper needs to change, and it isn’t something that’s going to be found in adherence to a series of editorial guidelines.

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