Mar 25 2019

What Good Journalism Looks Like

It’s refreshing to encounter a well-researched piece of excellent journalism that is not afraid to communicate an accurate picture of the subject. The headline of this article reads, “Naturopaths are snake-oil salespeople masquerading as health professionals,” by Gary Nunn writing for the Guardian.

He begins:

When I began researching and conducting interviews for a feature about naturopaths, I was doggedly determined to keep an open mind. Journalism 101 dictates balance: a fair hearing to both sides. My commitment was to present the unbiased truth; I was about to embark on a learning journey, as journalists often do.

Here’s the thing – many journalists confuse the need to approach a topic with a fair and open mind with the piece itself being “balanced.” However, if the topic itself is asymmetrical, then this leads to a false balance. Rather, the piece should reflect reality, not an arbitrary conclusion that both sides are equal.

Another trap is to justify this false balance by saying – I’ll let the readers (or viewers) decide. This standard makes sense for a news piece, rather than an opinion piece, but is often misapplied. It’s OK to give information without drawing firm conclusions from that information, and let the reader draw their own conclusions. But this approach requires a lot of context. In science journalism, it’s better to let experts give their analysis. Further, this editorial approach is not a justification for false balance. These are independent variables.

The information given in a piece should reflect the underlying reality, whether or not you editorialize in the end or leave the conclusions unstated.

Sometimes the “let the readers decide” rationalization is used not only to justify false balance, but to justify a gullible piece of reporting that showcases cranks and frauds, with either no or just token skepticism. In that context, the rationalization is complete BS.

Nunn falls for none of this. He approached the topic with as unbiased a mind as he could muster, but then followed the story wherever it lead. That is having a truly open mind – letting the evidence and logic speak. Another journalistic fail I often encounter is when a journalist approaches a piece with the story already essentially written. They decided what narrative would be interesting, and they are just backfilling in facts and quotes. The resulting piece is a real as reality TV.

In Nunn’s journey to discovering what naturopaths are really all about, he found:

There were attempts to discredit the academics I interviewed, and shoehorn their own, cherry-picked ones in. A senior Cambridge University educated medical professional I interviewed – a dissenter – was labelled “ignorant”. I was told that if I really cared about the public, and if I had any credibility as a journalist, I’d remove the sceptical comments. There was a transparent attempt to rubbish a former naturopath who now speaks out against the industry. A demand to see a revised piece was then made. I declined, asking that my professionalism and independence as a journalist was respected.

Surely, if they truly had faith in their practice, naturopaths would let the results speak for themselves, rather than spending time being hyper-defensive and trying to discredit trained medical professionals.

That is an astute observation. Anyone who has dealt with alternative medicine and health fraud knows from first hand experience that the practitioners are hypersensitive, always on the attack, and even childish in their defensiveness.

The “former naturopath” he is referring to is Britt Hermes. She has written several articles for Science-Based Medicine, and we interviewed her on the SGU. Naturopaths hate her, because she reveals how horrible their education is, and the complete absence of any evidence-based standard of care. As a newly-minted practitioner she was horrified to discover the truth about her chosen profession, and had the courage to get out. She now is getting a real science-based education, which has only highlighted for her the low level of training she had in naturopathic school.

One major focus of their training is homeopathy – a 100% magical treatment not based in reality. If you use homeopathy in your practice, then you are a quack. It means you do not understand science, do not base your medical practice on science or evidence, or are content using magical treatments that make absolutely no sense.

Homeopathy is also just the tip of the pseudoscience iceberg. They use water cures, unsupported herbs, they mix real and fake nutritional advice, many are anti-vaccine, and they never met a supplement they didn’t like.

The entire profession appears to be based on the appeal-to-nature fallacy – if it seems natural, then it’s good. Anything that seems too artificial is automatically bad. This is philosophy-based medicine. What they don’t do is then subject specific treatments to rigorous scientific testing, and let the evidence dictate practice. So essentially, they are just making it up as they go along (as Britt Hermes confirmed with her own experience). They chat with each other and base treatments on anecdotes. This is medieval level medicine.

So I applaud Nunn for following the evidence and not giving in to false balance. Bad reporting about pseudoscience by the media is a huge part of the problem. It gives false legitimacy to snake oil, rather than calling it what it is.


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