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The Skeptics Society has roasted several media organisations, collectively awarding them its annual Bent Spoon award for “journalistic gullibility” after they gave “Moon Man” Ken Ring largely uncritical coverage in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes.

Vicki Hyde

Vicki Hyde

The story is one close to the hearts of Skeptics spokeswoman Vicki Hyde, whose neighbourhood in Redcliffs, Christchurch was hit hard by the earthquakes, spurring Hyde to set up an emergency information service that fell back on notice boards  and flyers when electricity and internet services were knocked out.

“We believe that it is the business of the professional media to ask pertinent questions on behalf of the public when presenting material as factual. We even have broadcasting standards which call for accurate reporting. Many, many media outlets and journalists failed the basic standards of their profession in failing to ask ‘where is the evidence?’ in the face of Ken Ring’s claims to predict earthquakes. They did us all a disservice,” said Hyde as she singled out several organisations in particular.

Since the winners of the Bent Spoon were revealed late last week, there’s been very little coverage of them by the media, which isn’t surprising, given that most of the major outlets are Bent Spoon recipients. The Bent Spoon awards follows a Media7 special in which you, the Sciblogs readers and the Science Media Centre, assembled a list of the best and worst science stories of the last year. Suffice to say, there was at least a bit of overlap with the Bent Spoon awards.

What the Skeptics quite rightly criticise in the coverage of Ken Ring’s earthquake predictions, is the media’s treatment of balance. Several journalists I have spoken to have defended their media outlets’ coverage of Ken Ring by citing the public interest in his predictions and therefore the need to get both sides of the story in evaluating his claims. While the concern among the public raised by Ring is certainly worthy of a story, the media fell over itself in airing at length the views of Ring, often without much in the way of critical scientific analysis of them. The upshot was that the media outlets cited below by the Skeptics, gave Ring free coverage, thus exacerbating the problem.

Those attracting the ire of the Skeptics include:

Radio Live’s Marcus Lush: “for giving great and unquestioning publicity for Ring’s claims that Christchurch would have a major earthquake — ‘one for the history books’ — on March 20th, and continuing to support Ring’s promotion as an earthquake predictor and weather forecaster.

TVNZ Close Up’s Mark Sainsbury: “for giving Ring another platform to air his ideas with very little in-depth critique (Ken Ring Breaks His Silence, July 12,2011)

“The best thing about Ken’s failure on March 20 was his long silence afterwards. Yet here he is back on what is supposed to be credible current affairs show with more vague pronouncements and self-justifications. Surely Closeup had another Kate-and-William clip they could have played instead to maintain their level of in-depth journalism,” said Hyde. Ouch!

Herald on Sunday’s Chloe Johnson: “provided uncritical publicity for Ring which continued long after his failures“.

“It’s been sad to see the Herald name devalued by the tabloid approach of the Herald on Sunday, especially when the lower-quality spin-off can sometimes do good stuff such as its hard-hittingeditorial headlined ‘Charlatan Ring merits contempt‘,” noted Hyde.

Also hammered with the Bent Spoon award was media commentator Brain Edwards, who runs a popular blog on the local media scene.

Brian Edwards: “described by one commentator as providing ‘banal and rigourless equivocations’, along the lines of such gems as ‘the evidence that the moon has some contributory influence on earthquakes seems slight…however, it is not impossible that it does’.

“We’ve seen Edwards cogently skewer sloppy thinking in the past, so it was surprising to see just how wishy-washy he was in this particular case,” said Hyde.

John Campbell, Campbell Live: The notorious interview with Ken Ring that resulted in Campbell issuing a televised apology to Moon Man received nominations for the Bent Spoon award as well as the Bravo Award for critical thinking, but in the end the Skeptics decided it worthy of a Bent Spoon.

Said Hyde:  “We appreciate what John was trying to do — introduce a little evidence and call into question some very dubious claims — but we knew he’d blown it as soon as he started to talk over the top of Ken.”

But it wasn’t all bad news – this year’s Bravo Award winners included:

Janna Sherman, Greymouth Star: “for her item ‘Sceptics revel in Hokitika ‘earthquake’ non-event’.

“In science, a lack of evidence or a failed prediction can tell us a lot; in the media, we rarely see any stories about a non-event. That’s why it was great to see Sherman and the Star cover Ken’s failure — pseudo-scientists and psychics alike will only trumpet their sucesses as part of their self-promotion. To get the real picture, you need to hear about their failures too,” noted Hyde.

Philip Matthews, Marlborough Express: “for a great article on 1080 that actually says there is really only one side to the story rather than introducing an alleged controversy with token ‘balance’.”

Said Hyde: “We don’t ask the Flat Earth Society to provide balance for a story on the International Space Station orbiting a spherical Earth. Why should we give a false impression of evidence-based “debate” in other areas such as 1080 or immunization? If there truly is controversy based on evidence, let the evidence speak for itself, but don’t give us misleading balance based on opinion and hearsay.”

The Skeptics also commended Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who “while not in the media itself, did a great job of evaluating the evidence and presenting a report [on 1080] clearly outlining the evidence.

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