Can Reporting Accurate Scientific Information Harm the Public?

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Submission Summary
Journalistic practice is guided by norms receive sparing attention from philosophers, especially in the context of science reporting. This presentation examines how a conflict between two norms manifests in science journalism due to the phenomenon of science denialism. As outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics, one norm tells reporters to maximize the accuracy of their reporting. Another norm tells them to minimize the harm of their reporting. In important cases, I argue, science journalists can’t satisfy both norms simultaneously. I then investigate an option to resolve this conflict, which I argue ultimately fails. Inspired by the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, I illustrate this norm conflict using the example of reporting scientific disagreement on the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of a deadly virus. As empirical research by Gustafson and Rice (2019) suggests, communicating scientific disagreement can lead to the public’s rejection of scientific findings and, consequently, the maintenance of status quo behaviors. This can cause harm when behavioral change is needed to prevent harm. I argue that if journalists report the science on masks in a maximally accurate way, then they would report that, while the most evidence suggests masks work, some evidence suggests they don’t work and meager evidence suggests they could promote infection. However, reporting this scientific disagreement may cause the public harm because it could lead some to deny the science, not wear masks and increase their chances of catching and spreading the virus to others. Alternatively, journalists could merely report the leading hypothesis that masks work, thereby avoiding communicating scientific disagreement and causing the harm outlined above. But then they wouldn’t be reporting the science in a maximally accurate manner because they would be implying the science entails more consensus than it really does. One might argue that the accuracy norm should take precedence over the harm norm in such cases of conflict because “there is nothing more important” than this norm to journalism, as Fred Brown of the SPJ’s Ethics Committee notes. However, this resolution misses the point of the harm norm, I argue: As the SPJ’s Code notes, the harm norm guides journalists to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm.” Thus, there are situations in which journalists – non-science journalists in particular – decide to sacrifice some accuracy to prevent harm. An example of this is reporting on suicide: Journalists intentionally leave the details of suicides vague (and, thus, don’t maximize accuracy), because research shows that providing details can lead to copycats. However, there are no cases, to my knowledge, in which science journalists have sacrificed some accuracy in their reporting specifically to prevent harm to the public. Ultimately, the goal of this presentation is to raise and begin to address the following questions: Why shouldn’t the harm norm apply in the pandemic case I outline above if it does apply in the suicide case? Or more fundamentally, why should (or shouldn’t) communicating scientific information be exempt from the harm norm?
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University of Pennsylvania

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