This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.
It is easy for journalists to succumb to the notion that we make very little difference in this world. According to Pew, only 28% of Americans believe journalists contribute “a lot” to society, while 27% believe journalists contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all.” And aGallup poll showed that only about 20% of Americans believe that reporters are honest and ethical. On the bright side, at least we beat out car salesmen (9%), Congressmen (8%), and lobbyists (6%). Huzzah!
Many young people go into journalism because they “want to change the world,” but by that, they often mean engaging in advocacy journalism. I believe that is the wrong approach. Too much of it, in my opinion, comes across as unobjective and even dishonest, far more akin to propaganda than to journalism. That is because advocacy journalists — by definition — are wedded to an ideological worldview and, hence, are not particularly amenable to changing their opinions if the facts change. Instead, they resort to cramming and distorting evidence to fit into their worldview.
We manifestly reject that sort of journalism at RealClearScience. Like most journalists, we also want to change the world, but we do not want to do so by embracing political or social causes. Instead, we just want to tell the truth to the best of our ability. And when the facts change, our opinions change. Those are two of the guiding principles upon which this website is based.
A logical corollary to those principles is that we should hold influential people accountable for their actions and words. When we come across scientific misinformation, we believe it is our duty to correct the record. We believe the traditional “watchdog” role of journalism is important for keeping the public properly informed and maintaining a healthy democracy.
To that end, Todd Myers — the environmental director of the Washington Policy Center — recently brought to my attention a curious tweet posted by the “Ecoconsumer,” a King County (Seattle and vicinity) employee whose job is to promote various environmental causes. (No, I don’t think that’s a legitimate use of taxpayer money, but that’s a subject for another day.)
His tweet, since removed (but forever memorialized here), advertised a new “documentary” about how cell phones cause cancer. Loyal readers of RealClearScience, as well as most reasonably educated people, know that is complete rubbish. Because cell phones operate using microwaves, it is not physically possible for them to cause cancer. As Michael Shermer explains, microwaves do not have enough energy to break chemical bonds, which is a requirement for something to be carcinogenic. Besides, we are constantly bathed in electromagnetic radiation — from the sun, wi-fi devices, laptop computers, radio broadcasts, etc. If all electromagnetic radiation caused cancer, none of us would be alive.
Disturbed that a government employee would post such nonsense, I contacted the Ecoconsumer. He sounded rather flustered by my phone call, so I reached out to his superior. Within mere moments following a brief conversation, in which he agreed with me that King County should be disseminating accurate information, the offending tweet was removed.
I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised. Encounters with bureaucrats rarely end so quickly and favorably. I felt that, for the first time, my job as “watchdog” actually paid off. And though removing a single post from Twitter hardly constitutes an Earth-shaking victory, maybe it is quite possible for journalists to make a difference in this world — albeit, for some of us, just one tweet at a time.