OPINION | George Claassen: Our brothers' keepers – Should media be guardians against misinformation?

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 The media has come under fire for not wanting to publish conspiracy theories or give a platform to anti-vaccination pundits, writes the author.
The media has come under fire for not wanting to publish conspiracy theories or give a platform to anti-vaccination pundits, writes the author.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

As Covid-19 spread its devastation worldwide, a serious debate in media, scientific and legal circles developed because credible media sources have rightly started to refuse giving a platform to conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination pundits, writes George Claassen.

Should the media be gatekeepers against misinformation that can harm the public?

As Covid-19 spread its devastation worldwide, a serious debate in media, scientific and legal circles developed because credible media sources have rightly started to refuse giving a platform to conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination pundits – to the chagrin of the spreaders of pseudoscientific nonsense and quackery who run to media ethical regulatory bodies or even the courts to try to make their fallacies heard.

The gatekeeping concept in mass communication theory was first coined by the German social psychologist Kurt Lewin as far back as 1943. He showed how gatekeepers use certain criteria in selecting news messages that shape society, a complex process in which gatekeepers and the environment in which they function "have to be considered as one constellation of interdependent factors". Nearly 80 years later, this is abundantly illustrated by the complexities of the Covid pandemic. 

Influences on gatekeeping 

Other researchers, notably led by Pamela Shoemaker, a retired professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, expanded on Lewin's theory, noting that gatekeeping is influenced more by forces on the routine level of analysis than by individual staff writers' characteristics. 

The similarities between the nature and aims of journalism, science and the legal profession are often emphasised. All three strive to discover and reveal the facts and truth, although following different routes and applying specific professional codes to determine the veracity of claims and premises. 

News24 has been castigated in pseudoscientific circles for refusing to publish the warped and often blatantly misleading views about Covid-19 and vaccinations cast up by Panda, "one of SA's most vocal, anti-mask, anti-lockdown and vaccine hesitancy-driving groups", as Ahmed Areff, deputy editor of Fin24, described it in a recent article.

READ | George Claassen: Journalism is main vaccine against disinformation. Why independence of the media matters

News24's refusal to publish pseudoscientific, misleading, and often dangerous claims about Covid-19 and vaccinations is in line with findings of the South African Press Council's appeal panel in the GroundUp vs Joseph Winer case, as well as the standard policy widely applied by members of the International Organization of Newsombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO). 

When reporting on science, journalists can learn from significant developments that have in the recent past taken place in the legal profession about the gatekeeping function and the duty of courts to withhold misleading pseudoscience from juries in the United Kingdom, the USA and elsewhere. It was set in motion by the infamous and tragic case of a lawyer, Sally Clark, of Cheshire in the UK.

Charged and convicted of murder

Two of Clark's babies died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in 1996 and 1998, and she was charged and convicted of murder in a travesty of justice where basic mathematics and statistics were not understood and misinterpreted by the courts.  

Professor Barry Lewis, a former president of the British Mathematical Association, was devastating in his scorn of Clark's conviction, using the case as an example of bad mathematics in society. He said the judgment tells us that we have a big problem, a problem not only that some people fail mathematics, but also that people who pass in other fields, often do not understand anything about mathematics. In the Clark case, it includes about everyone in the legal profession, Lewis remarked. 

If QCs (Queen's Counsel), judges and even well-known scientists don't understand basic statistics, what chance does the rest of the population have, Lewis asked. Let us understand the paradox: while the world is becoming more mathematical, mathematical literacy is becoming more and more rare, he emphasised. 

Clark was found guilty, mainly based on the testimony of Professor Roy Meadow, a paediatrician, who also played a role in the conviction and life sentences of two other British mothers, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel. The prosecution asked him to testify about the statistical probability that more than one baby in a family can die of SIDS. 

Clark, Cannings and Patel's convictions were all later overturned on appeal when the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) severely criticised Meadow's interpretation of statistics. The RSS rejected Meadow's testimony that the probability of more than one baby dying of SIDS in a family can be 1 in 73 million and called it "bad mathematics". Other medical evidence was also not used to proof the innocence of the three mothers. 

Meadow's Law 

The result was that the British health authorities conducted a thorough investigation of 297 other cases where a parent or carer had been convicted of killing a baby or infant under the age of two in the past 10 years. On 14 February 2006, the UK attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, announced that three of these cases needed to be reconsidered by the courts, but that in the majority "other extraneous evidence existed to support the findings"

Meadow's testimony in numerous other cases later became known as Meadow's Law: "One sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, unless proven otherwise." 

According to a former president of the RSS, Professor Peter Green, Meadow's Theory does not hold any water when mathematical statistics are taken into consideration. The mothers were the victims of what Green called "Prosecutor's Fallacy", a tendency in the legal profession when prosecutors misinterpret statistics and sway juries to believe these erroneous statistics.

What stuck in the heads of the jury convicting Clark, was Meadow's 1 out of 73 million chance statistics. (The British General Medical Council [GMC] later struck him from the Medical Register after he was found to have offered erroneous and misleading evidence in the trial. The British High Court in 2006 overturned the GMC's ruling that Meadow was guilty of serious professional misconduct, finding that he had given "honest, albeit mistaken, evidence"). 

In his presidential address to the Mathematical Association in 2003, Lewis explained the correct statistics, according to the mathematical Theory of Bayes, to refute Meadow's testimony. The chances that Clark was not guilty when applying Bayes' Theory, was 0.625. In other words, her chances of innocence were greater than 1 in 2. That is very far, very far from the 1 in 73 million used in the trial, Lewis wrote in the Mathematical Gazette of November 2003. 

According to Dr Arnold Muller, retired senior mathematics lecturer at Stellenbosch University, Meadow's sums consisted of an elementary mistake. Muller is South Africa's leading scholar exposing the fundamental mistakes courts make in the way they deal with expert witnesses and how probability theory is misunderstood and misconstrued. 

Correct calculations 

"Successive SIDS deaths within the same family, are not statistically independent occurrences, and in relation to dependent occurrences, the so-called Theorem of Bayes is applicable in the statistics. When the specific calculation is done correctly, there is a higher than 60% statistical probability that a second SIDS death in a family was not murder."

Muller rightly asks, "how is it possible that the important role players in the British legal world (expert witnesses, judges, prosecutors, advocates, QCs) in all these cases were not aware of such an elementary part of mathematics? Surely, some of them had mathematics at school?" 

The same questions are also asked in South Africa and other legal systems about the reliability of so-called expert witnesses or ways in which the culture of scientific endeavour and the culture of legal endeavour can be aligned. One can also add the culture of journalism endeavour in this regard as journalists far too often think that the audi alteram partem rule, the right to reply, is sacrosanct. 

READ | George Claassen: Creating panic porn: Are journalists scaremongering about Covid-19?

For too long, journalists also applied this rule to science news, opening the door to quacks, charlatans, scamsters and pseudoscientific conspiracy theorists to insist on getting a platform to spread their misleading claims – on the theory of evolution, climate change, astronomy, health, vaccinations and pandemics, and new discoveries in general. 

That this is a common problem was illustrated when I once reported on RSG's Monitor, the Afrikaans morning news and actuality programme, about a peer-reviewed article of Muller in the Stellenbosch Law Review. In it he criticised South Africa's courts for not considering Bayes' Theorem in complicated cases where statistics and probability theory were important in determining the guilt of an accused. 

My live interview on RSG was barely finished when I received a scathing email from one of South Africa's judges from the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg division, censuring Muller and me for not knowing what we were talking about. He followed a very common strategy, blaming the media as messenger and the mathematician likewise (very similar to the attacks on credible scientists and reliable journalists reporting on Covid-19). It was clear that the honourable judge had not read Muller's article – but to his credit, he cited Muller in a judgment in a later case after Muller, and I had sent him the article. 

In 2002, the US National Academy of Sciences and the American legal profession met to discuss the problem of credible scientific evidence delivered in court and how to ensure that the science is trustworthy and not the product of the "Prosecutor's Fallacy".  

Lack of scientific knowledge 

This also relates to the way in which intricate science in all its difficult facets is presented and interpreted in court and portrayed by the media to a lay public. What is meant by a lay public, is not only a reference to the jury whose lack of knowledge of science reflects that of society in general, but also to judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers not suitably trained in science and mathematics, and similarly science-illiterate journalists reporting about this from court. 

For the media, its own role as gatekeepers to protect readers against potentially harmful pseudoscience when they are reporting about science, is closely related to the quandary of the legal profession.

News24 not providing a platform, even as a right to reply, to Nick Hudson and Panda to spread misinformation about vaccinations and the general science about Covid-19, is in line with this gatekeeping function as being in the public interest, to protect the public against pseudoscientific claims by Hudson and Panda.

In this, News24 is not alone, as GroundUp and Daily Maverick applied the same principle. As Branko Brkic, editor-in-chief of Daily Maverick, explains: "The right to reply is a nuanced thing, and often it is accompanied by ad hominem attacks against journalists and editors which do not add to the debate. It is not a universal right."

In a next column, I'll write about steps taken by the American legal system to ensure that credible scientists' testimony can play a crucial role in courts, also how this affects the reporting of journalists to be able to identify red flags in scientific research and how it is reflected in court and in the media. 

George Claassen is News24's public editor and a board member of the Organization of Newsombudsmen and Standards Editors. 

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