Peer-reviewed Monday – Making Ignorance

I meant to come up with the perfect, open-access peer-reviewed article on something different – something besides media literacy, publics, critical thinking or reflective practice.

But I failed.  I’ve read a few articles this week, but nothing really compelling or interesting.  So here’s a quick thing -the article I read is behind Sage’s paywall:

S. H. Stocking, L. W. Holstein (2008). Manufacturing doubt: journalists’ roles and the construction of ignorance in a scientific controversy Public Understanding of Science, 18 (1), 23-42 DOI: 10.1177/0963662507079373

It does look like there is an earlier conference paper version (from the International Communication Association annual meeting in 2006) here.

Short recap – epidemiologist Steven Wing (UNC) published two studies suggesting that living next to  industrial, factory-farming hog farms is hazardous to one’s health, and that these facilities are more likely to be located in areas where poor, African-Americans live.

The statewide hog industry trade association, the North Carolina Pork Council, responded to both studies by characterizing the scientist as politically motivated and the studies as “pseudo-science” filled with holes and errors, charges they swiftly brought to the attention of the news media with rapidly issued news releases and follow-up interviews with reporters.

Informed by sociologist Michael Smithson’s work on the construction of scientific ignorance, Stocking and Holstein go into their study working from the research assumption that the industry implicated in Wick’s research would respond by using strategies based on uncertainty and ignorance – that they would “claim to journalists that the research was tainted by error, incompleteness, irrelevance and uncertainty and was therefore unsoung, untrustworthy and open to doubt.”  They, like Smithson, argue that we need to look as closely at how scientific ignorance is constructed as we do at how scientific knowledge is created.

Stocking and Holstein were interested in looking at how science journalists would report on these industry tactics – would they accept the industry’s assertions or challenge them, and how?  They suggested that the prior research on the construction of scientific ignorance provided little guidance on this question.

Unsurprisingly, they found that the industry did employ the predicted tactics – “[i]ndustry’s claims were sweeping and sometimes vitriolic.”

What’s interesting to me about this study was the finding that journalists’ responses to these industry claims were most strongly related to how the individual journalists perceived their own roles.  Their own understanding of the science they were reporting was related to how they reported it, but not as strongly as how they identified their roles as journalists.    To discuss this finding, they drew on Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) who articulated four such roles:  disseminators, interpretive/ investigative reporters,  populist mobilizers, and adversaries.

Disseminators put forward all points of view equally and trust the public to make up their own minds.

Interpretive/investigative reporters have trouble when it comes to science stories.  Most reporters aren’t really qualified to do their own research on the topic.  In this study, only one reporter – described as a “sophisticated consumer of science” did so.  It is perhaps not surprising that this reporter was an editorial writer who felt that he had a certain amount of freedom to build his own case and present his own interpretation of the issue.

Populist mobilizer is relatively newly defined by Weaver and Wilhoit, but it is based on an old muckraking tradition.  A few reporters fit this profile.  These reporters gave time to the industry claims and to the science.  And they also pulled in other voices – lay people and local people – who they believed had a stake in the narrative.  These were voices that might have otherwise been left out.  These stories tended, for different reasons, to skew towards verifying the science.

Adversarial – this role is fairly rare.  Most journalists tend to be conservative when it comes to established power structures.  In this case, the adversarial reporter attacked the institution behind the scientific research (UNC).

The authors concluded that even though the research in question came out of a respected institution, was conducted by a respected scholar and was reported in respectable outlets – “ignorance claims became a viable tool for an economically powerful but threatened industry that sought to follow the tobacco industry’s lead and manufacture doubt about science that jeopardized their interests.”

What’s interesting to me about this is that the industry poked not just at the conclusions – but at everything else – the research method, Wick himself, UNC and more and that every one of those jabs was recorded somewhere in the press.   These attacks weren’t designed to suggest any positive alternative, or to make any substantive criticisms — they were designed to suggest uncertainty and manufacture doubt – “we just don’t know.”  This isn’t a debate or a discussion – it’s a game.  The research Stocking and Holstein draw upon predicted this – this is an established and identifiable rhetorical strategy.

Stocking and Holstein acknowledge that the pool of journalists analyzed here is too small to draw any strong conclusions – but their suggestion that science journalists, just as much as other more obviously interested parties, construct ignorance when it serves their interests (when it supports their own professional identity).

On the one level, this is interesting because of the information literacy implications – people need to know how to find scientific research, to use it and to understand it because they can’t always trust science reporting to do those things for them.  But on another level, which I think is more interesting, is the why this article suggests – why the science reporting might not be doing what we need it to.

It’s not enough to say ” so and so wants to prove that hog farming is awesome because they have X or Y interests in hog farming.”  This article suggests that Reporter X might have no personal or financial or political interest at all in how his or her article skews on the story.  But still, their interest in presenting as an Investigative Journalist or as an Adversary Speaking Truth to Power skews the story anyway.  That’s a more interesting way of thinking about evaluation – rhetoric isn’t always obvious after all and there are a lot of dimensions to it.


for more on the models in this article:

Smithson, M. (1989). Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms.  New York: Springer-Verlag.

Weaver, D.H. and Wilhoit, G.C. (1996). The American Journalist in the 1990’s: U.S. News People at the End of an Era.  Mahwah, NJ, Earlbaum.

2 thoughts on “Peer-reviewed Monday – Making Ignorance

  1. This is neat, thanks! Identity is constructed through expression!

    What is an author saying about herself, when she writes? You are such the serious consumer of scholarship! :o

    And the commenter, so serious and aloof you’re pretty sure he’s joking. Or vice-versa.

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