OPINION: Press Council’s appeal decision a victory for accurate science reporting and for countering quackery around Covid-19

A positive result for Covid-19. (iStock, Gallo Images)
A positive result for Covid-19. (iStock, Gallo Images)

It strengthens the hand of the media to counter often dangerous quackery, as the many sudden "cures" and "solutions" by quacks and charlatans to prevent Covid-19 or to heal those who are ill, testify, writes George Claassen.

With the Covid-19 pandemic overshadowing and even overwhelming news reporting worldwide, a significant and important decision was made last week by the appeal panel of the South African Press Council in support of science journalists and science reporting in countering quackery and pseudoscience.

This media ethics appeal decision by Justice Bernard Ngoepe and his committee in favour of GroundUp and against a decision by the Press Ombud, cuts to the heart of the balance principle in journalism and emphasises science journalism's long-standing argument that false equivalency should not be allowed in reporting on scientific findings and developments.  

Section 1.8 of the Press Code states, "The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication ...".

This means that the audi alteram partem rule (the right to reply) should be applied in news reporting but science journalists have argued for years, strongly supported by scientists, that the right to reply should in science reporting be weighed according to the scientific evidence for a claim made by quacks, charlatans and scam artists selling dubious remedies and products to a gullible public.

If a claim does not pass the test of evidence as accepted widely in the scientific community and through a vigorous peer reviewed system, then the right to reply does not apply in a story.   

In an editorial last week, GroundUp's editors wrote that the ruling arose from an article, Quack claims about oxygen treatment are dangerous, published by GroundUp in March 2019.

The article, written by the highly regarded science journalist Natasha Bolognesi, "clearly categorised at the top as science, described how some companies are making unsubstantiated medical claims about hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

"This has legitimate purposes - like treating scuba divers who get the bends. But quack companies offer it as a treatment for cancer, autism and much else."

GroundUp’s report named a company making such spurious claims. 

"The company’s manager lodged a complaint with the press ombud. He argued his company should have been contacted for its view of the science. He also argued that GroundUp’s article was inaccurate, even though it was accepted during the proceedings that we accurately reported the claims and pricing information on his company’s website," the editorial states.  

In its response, GroundUp argued "that the article included the views of three experts on the subject of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. We said we had accurately quoted the company’s website – and since the company has no recognised expertise on hyperbaric oxygen therapy, it was unnecessary to seek its comment on the subject".

Furthermore, GroundUp argued "that science reporting should be treated differently to news reporting, and so it was unnecessary to seek the views of a company making inaccurate claims".

The appeal panel ruled that since "the Ombud had found that this was a science (as opposed to news) article, it was not subject to Clause 1.8. GroundUp therefore did not need to seek the views of the company. The complaint was dismissed. GroundUp does not have to apologise". 

As GroundUp rightly points out and an argument substantially supported by the Organization of Newsombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO) at its conference last year in New York about which I wrote shortly afterwards on 25 June, there is "a long-running debate about balance in science reporting.

"Must publications give weight to the views of Aids denialists, climate change denialists, flat-earthers, creationists or other discredited views on science? Or to hucksters making a quick buck on false claims? Our position, as with many reputable publications worldwide, is emphatically No. We do not believe in false balance."

As GroundUp emphasises, many "dubious claims are being made on the Internet to sell products to test or treat Covid-19. We consider this dangerous and we will do our best to expose those companies".

In my column last year, I wrote "Because of the right-to-reply ethical principle, editors and journalists far too often give pseudo-scientific quacks and science denialists exposure, or think it is imperative to apply the?audi alteram partem?rule diligently and rigorously in these science stories".

I argued then that the South African Press Code and the codes applied by most media houses, also by my fellow public editors at ONO dealing with complaints by science denialists, state the broad principle that the media shall "present only what may reasonably be true as fact".

How do we then weigh clearly pseudo-scientific claims made in the name of science? 

Scientists and award-winning science reporters generally agree with Boyce Rensberger, former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Programme: "Science demands evidence, and some forms of evidence are worth more than others are … Balanced coverage of science does not mean giving equal weight to both sides of an argument.?It means apportioning weight according to the balance of evidence?(as set out in the Nieman Reports; my emphasis). 

The decision by Justice Ngoepe’s panel is a breakthrough for accurate, truthful and sound science reporting.

It strengthens the hand of the media to counter often dangerous quackery, as the many sudden "cures" and "solutions" by quacks and charlatans to prevent Covid-19 or to heal those who are ill, testify.  

GroundUp and its editor, Nathan Geffen, should be lauded by all and sundry for countering quackery by publishing Bolognesi’s article, for not accepting a decision by the Press Ombud that was clearly flying in the face of sound and accurate science reporting, and for acting on behalf of scientists, the general public and quality journalism where accuracy and truthfulness should be more important than providing platforms for pseudo-scientific thinking that can endanger lives.

And this has become so much more imperative now with the Covid-19 crisis, climate denialism and anti-vaccinators in our midst.  

- George Claassen is News24’s public editor and a board member of the Organization of Newsombudsmen & Standards Editors. He is also an award-winning science journalist.  

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