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01/08/2014

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Journalists need to be critical

Bias and bad research can weaken campaigns, finds Mike Childs.

Bias and bad research can weaken campaigns, finds Mike Childs.

Felicity Mellor is right when she says that ‘journalists are faced with the difficult task of transforming scientific findings into engaging stories.’ But the difficulty goes beyond this. Journalists are also faced with editorial bias as well as occasionally shoddy research, which is sometimes peer reviewed.

Examples of the former include the Sunday Times’ failure to report a favourable public opinion poll on wind-farms that they commissioned themselves, and the Daily Mail’s and Mail on Sunday’s track records of publishing misleading and inflated figures for the cost of green energy, as exposed by the organisation Carbon Brief.

An example of the latter is a piece of research based on rats fed GM maize and glyphosate, which suggested both could give rise to tumours – this study had serious methodological flaws and has been discredited.

Independent assessment

The media furore around discredited studies can seriously distract from the strength of high-quality evidence for the environmental issues that we campaign on. For example, the scientific consensus is clear that we need to transition rapidly away from fossil fuels to low carbon energy solutions; or the widely accepted scientific view that we need to reduce pesticide use

On controversial issues, journalists need independent assessments of the quality of published research.  For example, as the assessment on fluoridation for the Department of Health byYorkUniversity, or those published by global research teams such as the International Panel on Climate Change.

In the absence of these, journalists and environmentalists need to approach research findings with a critical mind, even those published in peer-review journals.

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Mike Childs
Mike Childs is Head of Policy, Research and Science at Friends of the Earth
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