Please take the time to read Susan Dentzer's excellent piece, just published online in the New England Journal of Medicine. There she focuses on medical reporting, but her point -- that in general, journalists must make more of an effort to present the context and complicated subtleties of an issue -- pertains to all fields of journalism.
I will avoid falling prey to the picking-and-choosing tendency she describes but not offering selected quotes here, but for her article's valuable conclusions:
In my view, we in the news media have a responsibility to hold ourselves to higher standards if there is any chance that doctors and patients will act on the basis of our reporting. We are not clinicians, but we must be more than carnival barkers; we must be credible health communicators more interested in conveying clear, actionable health information to the public than carrying out our other agendas. There is strong evidence that many journalists agree — and in particular, consider themselves poorly trained to understand medical studies and statistics.5 But not only should our profession demand better training of health journalists, it should also require that health stories, rather than being rendered in black and white, use all the grays on the palette to paint a comprehensive picture of inevitably complex realties. Journalists could start by imposing on their work a "prudent reader or viewer" test: On the basis of my news account, what would a prudent person do or assume about a given medical intervention, and did I therefore succeed in delivering the best public health message possible?
Ms. Dentzer goes on to point out that those interviewed also have the responsibility to aid their interviewing journalists by discussing medical issues and research results in context.
The field of journalism is in the midst of an incredible transformation, as printed formats are becoming less financially viable, more centrally-owned, and altogether fewer, while the electronic media is broadening in scope, availability, and approach. Bloggers are a central part of this change, with our ability to respond to events and share our viewpoints immediately and openly, and with this ability comes a responsibility to write with thoughtfulness and respect.
As readers and viewers, we must also commit ourselves to approaching the media with enough self respect to avoid sensational headlines and reject simplified descriptions. Do we read about a medical study or a political situation and take it at face value, allowing it to limit our understanding, narrow our outlook and increase our fears? Or do we take advantage of the many tools available to explore the issue, ask questions, look beyond try to see the issue in greater depth? Do we complain that the headlines are sensationalistic, then go and buy the paper anyway, or blithely quote some study we don't really understand?
Bottom line: Publishers and reporters must commit themselves, as Ms. Dentzer has done, to greater depth and breadth when reporting wars and politics, social and geographic changes, global issues and -- dare I add -- even celebrity personalities and events. And we, as media consumers, must share this responsibility.
Keep the balance,