Why Opinion Journalism and Science Don’t Mix

One likely reason why America has become so polarized, is the rise of opinion journalism. For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Opinion journalism is journalism that makes no claim of objectivity. Although distinguished from advocacy journalism in several ways, both forms feature a subjective viewpoint, usually with some social or political purpose.

The sharing of opinions is nothing new in news reporting. Editorial sections do it on a daily basis. However, when news outlets perform opinion journalism across all their articles, the line between fact and opinion dissolves.

This is particularly a problem when it comes to science, including climate change data, vaccine safety and of course, animal research. The fact is, decades of data show how animal studies play a critical role in the advancement of treatments, cures, and science itself. At the same time, Americans collectively believe that animal studies require strict controls and abuse cannot be tolerated.

This is where the need for balanced reporting comes in. Journalism that reflects multiple viewpoints is crucial because public opinion can be greatly swayed by news stories. We can point to countless examples – from the invasion of Iraq to Watergate – of how news reporting has shaped both policies and actions.

What Lab Animals Teach Us

To illustrate the benefits of good reporting and the dangers of one-sided journalism in the area of animal research, let’s consider two recent examples. We will analyze  an hour-long report on WHYY, a public radio station in the Philadelphia region, on the use of animals in research. We will compare this story to a recent report in The Intercept on the use of dogs in research. The WHYY story takes a traditional journalistic approach, where several viewpoints are included. In comparison, The Intercept story is opinion journalism.

First, it might be helpful for us to begin by defining what balanced news reporting looks like and why it is practiced.  According to the American Press Institute, the essential  elements of journalism are:

  • An attempt to be fair and accurate, through objective methods and managing bias.
  • It involves verification. As the American Press Institute states: “A journalist’s first job is to get it right.”
  • Its major obligation is to the truth.
  • Its first loyalty is to citizens
  • Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

Analysis: Fairness and Accuracy

Looking at the two examples mentioned above, the headlines for each story provide volumes of information:

WHYY’s headline: What Lab Animals Teach Us

The Intercept’s headline: Bred to Suffer: Inside the Barbaric U.S. Industry of Dog Experimentation

WHYY’s headline demonstrates neutrality, while The Intercept’s headline shows that the authors are not interested in providing an analysis of the subject from various viewpoints. Instead, it states the authors’ conclusion right up front, determining that the reader does not need to make their own mind up.

It’s also worth noting the language used by reporters covering these stories. WHYY’s coverage includes relatively unbiased phrases like “animal testing and “experimenting on animals.” In comparison, The Intercept’s story includes the following phrases expressed by the reporters themselves: “torturous experimentation,” “excruciating experiments,” “the horrors of the dog experimentation,” and “barbaric.”

Analysis: Verification, Obligation to the Truth, Loyalty to Citizens

As for the content of each story, WHYY’s article contains comments from a diverse set of experts. We’ve color coded them in order to demonstrate the variety of viewpoints. (Blue: Pro-animal research, Orange: Anti-animal research or mixed and Green: neutral

The experts featured in this story include:

  • A medical historian. 
  • A neuroscientist who studies mice and rats. 
  • A veterinarian who specializes in animal well-being. 
  • A research associate in the Laboratory Investigations Department at PETA 
  • A person who runs a sanctuary. 
  • A geneticist who studies fruit flies.
  • A geneticist who talks about the model organisms used in various kinds of research. 
  • A bioethicist. 
  • A scientist who studies coral. 

While the radio program contains more pro-research voices than those opposed, it is clear that producers made a concerted effort to cover a variety of viewpoints. Also, there are several instances where the interviewers ask questions that reflect competing views.

Bred to Suffer

Now, let’s compare that approach to The Intercept’s reporting. The story notably featured very few experts, relying heavily on the opinions of the writers, but it did include comments or information from:

  • The leader of Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights group which has been accused of entering animal facilities without permission and taking animals. 
  • A professor of neuroscience and pathology at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine, who used to study dogs, but is now a vocal opponent who protests animal studies with PETA. Note: Speaking of Research has  written about this scientist in the past.
  • A research associate with PETA. 
  • An opinion writer at the Houston Press who is firmly against animal studies. 

As you can see, those who could make a case for animal research were excluded from The Intercept’s story entirely. (Note: The authors claim Dr. Hansen provides this perspective…but clearly, as an opponent to animal studies, he does not.) It’s also worth noting that The Intercept story is primarily based on documents that already exist, such as information on websites, previously published opinion pieces and court rulings. The problem with this approach is that it ignores one of the fundamental traits of reporting: A reporter is supposed to begin the process with an open mind. They then look at the facts and speak to experts with various perspectives in order to shape their story and draw conclusions. However, in this case, it appears The Intercept flipped this process on its head. They began with a set agenda and then looked for data to support their half of the argument.

Analysis: Reporter Independence from the Subjects and Persons They Cover

As we previously noted, WHYY’s coverage demonstrates an effort to provide a variety of viewpoints and at times, the interviewers even pressed interviewees to defend their point of view.

In comparison, reporters for The Intercept appeared to take a friendlier stance with their experts, telling the story of those opposed to animal research without challenge.

It is also worth mentioning what happened after The Intercept published its story. Glenn Greenwald, an editor and author of the story, was the featured keynote speaker at the  Animal Liberation Conference, The animal rights gathering is hosted by Direct Action Everywhere, which happens to be one of the primary sources quoted within that article. Here’s Greenwald’s bio from the event website:

Glenn Greenwald

Traditionally, accepting an invitation to speak in support of one viewpoint you are covering was considered a major ethical breach in reporting for obvious reasons. This is why it is highly uncommon and something most reporters would avoid. Note: We know of no such relationships between those who produced WHYY’s coverage and either side of the discussion.

While freedom of the press should be protected and respected, we believe there is a case to be made for maintaining traditional reporting standards and making fairness the norm and not the exception. This is especially crucial when reporting on science, which itself is a process expected to be free from bias.

We fear that if opinion journalism is able to significantly impact science, we as a society will turn a blind eye to critical facts and opinions that deserve thoughtful analysis and attention.


3 thoughts on “Why Opinion Journalism and Science Don’t Mix

  1. The Intercept is an opinion journalism website. I would be curious as to what evidence Michael has that supports his conclusion there is a conspiracy afoot to breed animals in order for them to ultimately sufffer at the hands of humans, unless he considers domestic animal ownership abuse?

    1. The Intercept article focused on Ridglan Farms, which for 40 years has bred beagles specifically for research (as they say on their web site). An investigation of the place found that the dogs from birth were kept in cages and didn’t get to go outside; anyone who lives with a dog knows how cruel it is to keep a dog in a cage for their entire life. About 4000 dogs a year at Ridglan. The dogs are sold to research labs where they are experimented on and, typically, killed after the experiment. In the reports published in various journals the dogs are identified as coming from Ridglan and it often says that at the conclusion of the experiment they were killed. I think “bred to suffer” is quite accurate. You can call Greenwald’s article anything you want but it is an accurate story.

  2. In fact, The Intercept article was completely accurate. The dogs at that breeding facility ARE bred to suffer and if you do some research, as I did, you will find that a dog bred for research and used in research has a horrible life from birth until death, usually at the conclusion of a horrible experiment. We, as humans, have no moral right to use other animals, and we certainly have no right to use them for experiments. By the way, using bland language to describe what is actually a horrible thing is not objective journalist, it’s “doublespeak.”

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