CJR November/December 2004: Blinded by Science

How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality

By Chris Mooney

On May 22, 2003, the Los Angeles Times printed a front-page story by Scott Gold, its respected Houston bureau chief, about the passage of a law in Texas requiring abortion doctors to warn women that the procedure might cause breast cancer. Virtually no mainstream scientist believes that the so-called ABC link actually exists — only anti-abortion activists do. Accordingly, Gold’s article noted right off the bat that the American Cancer Society discounts the “alleged link” and that anti-abortionists have pushed for “so-called counseling” laws only after failing in their attempts to have abortion banned. Gold also reported that the National Cancer Institute had convened “more than a hundred of the world’s experts” to assess the ABC theory, which they rejected. In comparison to these scientists, Gold noted, the author of the Texas counseling bill — who called the ABC issue “still disputed” — had “a professional background in property management.”

Gold’s piece was hard-hitting but accurate. The scientific consensus is quite firm that abortion does not cause breast cancer. If reporters want to take science and its conclusions seriously, their reporting should reflect this reality — no matter what anti-abortionists say.

But what happened next illustrates one reason journalists have such a hard time calling it like they see it on science issues. In an internal memo exposed by the Web site LAobserved.com, the Times’s editor, John Carroll, singled out Gold’s story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias. Carroll specifically criticized Gold’s “so-called counseling” line (“a phrase that is loaded with derision”) and his “professional background in property management” quip (“seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this”). “The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers,” Carroll wrote, “but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it . . . . Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don’t need to waste our readers’ time with it.”

CJR November/December 2004: Blinded by Science:

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