Mass Media and Society: Merchant of Doubts
Science and media have similar characteristics; they both collect information and value accuracy and objectively. Objectivity in media excuses sluggish reporting, therefore, rather than focusing on the side that seems favorable, objectivity allows a reporter or a journalist to focus on both sides of the story. Like a journalist, scientists have a standard of conduct that provides a guideline on the kind of behavior expected of them. These standards are usually justified in terms of ethical principle and the goal of the scientists. The public usually benefits when these two institutions complement one another. However, the unfortunate effect of this interaction often results in misguided news that can have adverse consequences to the public. The documentary Merchants of Doubt underscores the interaction between media and science. The documentary traces the public relations strategies used by the tobacco industry to spread confusion on the effect of tobacco and global warming. The primary theme in this documentary is the importance of ethics in media and PR professionals.
In this documentary, director Robert Kenner highlights how pundits-for-hire were used as public relations (PR) professional to refute legitimate scientific research. Public relations started as a professional in the late 19th century, when newsmakers were looking for a way to get their stories told in the press releases and to elaborate public stunt (Croteau and William 61). PR professional offered access to news to the publisher; however, major companies have used the profession to get their views included in their mainstream media and to generate a false impression on numerous scientific controversies.
Kenner demonstrates how PR pundits were used by tobacco, dioxin, and fossil fuel industry to debate or cast some doubt on the research by legitimate scientific research, yet most of these experts did not take part in the scientific research. The documentary traces how these PR experts were paid and introduced to journalists to improve the falling credibility of the industries. Keller notes that corporations are ruthless when using PR firms. Ben Santer, a climate scientist who is highlighted in the film, claims that scientists are not trained to defend the finding of their research. They do not know how to present themselves in the media or to deal with public attacks (Keller). However, paid PR firms are experts on the media and are versed to telling lies that inspire confidence to the listener or viewers. The PR firm eventually injects doubts on real science that do not exist, thereby stalling actions that are bad for the bottom line of the corporations which has hired them.
In this film, Keller seems to understand the primary reasons many journalists are swayed by these PR pundits, some of whom are scientists or sounded like scientists even on issues that are beyond their expertise. Notably, media objectivity is of critical importance; thus, a journalist must consider the balance and avoid any form of bias when covering a story. However, given that a dozen of credible scientists are against thousands of these PR experts, who synthesized the initial scientific reporting based on their analysis; a journalist is likely to have a false balance. Oreskes, one of the interviewees in the film and the author who inspired the documentary, posits that the false balance created by the PR is not aimed to serve the issues at hand. She claims that “sometimes, the evidence and the data are on one side” (Keller). Similarly, one of the scientist in the film states that they have to prove their scientific research while the PR pundits have to sow the seeds of doubt. In other words, interaction with these pundits on the media results in different interpretation, and once an idea is readily accepted, it is open to confusing debates.
Although interviewing PR professionals in the media is a means of providing balance to two opposing viewpoints, numerous ethical issues arise in such debates. According to Croteau and William, it is always crucial for media professionals to decide whether to report or air a story, and the process of deciding determines whom they will be loyal to when reporting (81). That is to say; loyalty determines whether a particular cause is worth reporting or whether a competing loyalty should be a focus. A journalist has the responsibility to determine the direction of his or her loyalty reporting. Given that most of the PR pundits in this documentary were created to discredit scientific research, a journalist should make important ethical choices before reporting any debate that may create disinformation. Ethics is a value system that informs someone what is right or wrong, just or unjust, or fair or unfair. In many professions, a set of principle is needed to guide those in that profession to make better decisions in an ethical dilemma.
Philosophers have tried to draft rules that govern how to make an ethical choice since the day of ancient Greece. In particular, Aristotle believed that practical reason and virtue should guide a person in an ethical dilemma (Croteau and William 9). He believed that following the set rules is not sufficient; therefore, a person has to understand the consequences of their action and act based on the best outcome of a situation. Similarly, Kant asserts that a person must act as if their choices were to become a universal law. His ethical theory is based on the notion that an act is more important than a person acting. Such ethical philosophy helps a media professional to determine the amount or the kind of news that are fit to print or to air on a news media. Croteau and William use the concept of loyalty to help PR professional and journalism choose between two competing allegiances (81). Sorting through competing loyalties is often tricky, especially when one role conflicts with loyalty in another. PR professions are often employed, and this means that they cannot dissipate their organization. It is, therefore, necessary for the PR professional to abide by certain rules or models when deciding on conflicting loyalties.
Public relations strategies have historically been associated with unethical acts, either through lying or through offering falsehoods or involvement in corporate espionage. As such, critics argue that public relations are not subject to any ethical principle because the practice is akin to manipulation. In this documentary, Keller has underscored this kind of playbook developed by Tobacco companies such as the Big Tobacco or the Exxon Mobile to hide the relevant information from the public for their selfish gains. Most of the documentary’s running time is devoted to decades of campaigns funded by oil companies using PR to stall political action or cast doubt on scientific consensus. Similar playbooks were used by denialist to discredit scientific evidence mesh with the PR code of ethics. These companies used disinformation campaigns founded on the principle that media firms are obliged to present both points of view. However, this strategy is deception and only focuses on the corporate bottom line. One particular part of the documentary highlights the strategy used by the large corporation through PR firms to mislead the public on a crucial public health issue. Magician Jamey Ian Swiss used card tricks to demonstrate this PR strategy. The strategy used may seem simple, but like the game cards, Swiss demonstrates how the elements of the game are psychologically powerful. The strategies have been refined for years, and they may seem ethical, but are far from it, and they are often hard for the public to detect.
Some PR professions in this film have violated the code of ethics when they are faced with conflicting loyalties. One of the PR profession mentioned in this film is Marc Morano who gleefully admits in the documentary that he has no any form of scientific training but admits that he plays on TV. Precisely, his primary role is to humiliate scientists during a ‘balanced interview’ on new programs. He then rallies his followers to support the debate creates; therefore, scientific research has no place. For instance, his followers clobbered Bill Nye because he explained a complicated truth about science. As the documentary accentuate, such PR experts use the human vulnerability to underscore the goals from their employer. Morano acted unethically because even though he has no scientific background, he used his agenda in the name of a balanced viewpoint to discredit true scientific facts. The public relation code of ethics is comprised of set rules on how a PR practitioner should behave; this includes upholding the truth and fairness while preserving the right of their client and the responsibility of the public. Morano here does no uphold truthiness; rather, he demonstrates a deliberate intention to mislead.
Undoubtedly, a PR practitioner primary role is it to advocate for the organization, client or their cause, but he or she has a responsibility to serve the public interest. Ethical making model such as Potter Box can help PR professionals to make ethical choices, which means incorporating conflicting loyalties of their client and that of the public. Ralph Potter developed this model, and its initial requires the PR specialist to go through four basic steps before arriving at an ethical judgment. The four steps include understanding the relevant facts, outlining the values that are inherent in the decision, application of relevant principles, and articulating a loyalty (Croteau and William 9). In the case of Morano, the facts are straightforward. He had all the information; therefore, it is his discretion to distort them. Value means considering the truth and privacy of an individual. If the truth means attacking someone’s privacy, then a PR should give up some truth. Once the value has been established, PR applies philosophical principles as outlined by Kent, Aristotle, and other philosophers. The last step in this model is the articulation of loyalties. The PR expert must decide whom his or her loyalty lays, and when there is a conflict of loyalty, Porter claims that a PR expert can maintain a variety of loyalties. In this case, Morano does not seem to have a balance of loyalty. The loyalty of his clients was so dominant that he is forced to abandon his loyalty to the public, which arguably seems more critical.
Ethical challenges faced by PR professionals and journalists are more complex than in most professional. As noted, objectivity is essential to provide a balance. However, a PR professional must also think about the ethical worthiness of a message. Croteau and William suggest the use of ethical TARES test, which helps a PR officer to deliver the right message, whether when advertising or when on the news (56). The test allows a PR to assess Truthfulness, Authenticity, Respect, Equity, and Social responsibility of the message. If a PR practitioner does not include one of these elements in his or her messages, it is likely he or she will act unethically. Morano and other PR practitioners highlighted in this film are considered unethical because they have not included any of these elements on their message to the public. Precisely, the public needs to know the truth about tobacco and global warming, but Morano does not provide this information. Instead, he distorts credible information to confuse the client. Also, instead of becoming an advocate, he has become adversaries for a social problem. The message delivered by the PR pundits highlighted in this film does not offer equity; they discredit the scientific information knowing that the audience may not be able to interpret the information without prejudice.
In this film, Keller seems to understand the reasons journalists were used by the PR pundits to spread their corporate agenda. One of the key issues this documentary attempts to make is the way media can be complicit to unethical practices by pretending to be objective. Objectivity in media excuses lazy reporting; therefore, instead of a journalist or a reporter focusing on the side that is good enough, objectivity allows them to focus on both sides of the story (Croteau and William 23). The media desire to present both views in a story allows them to include PR pundits in their debates.
In the film, Oreskes claims that the journalists “fall for it lock, stock and barrel” (Keller Film). Being complicit to these PR pundits emphasized the importance of being cautious when involving PR experts in media coverage. The Potter Box model is one of the frameworks that a journalist can use when reporting a story. One of its critical elements is loyalty. Ideally, the choice of a journalist to use a PR pundit is grounded on ethical reasoning as well as demand. The justification for the demand of the other side of the story is not enough to let a journalist violated his or her loyalty to the public. The responsibility of a journalist is to lay out the fact, and tell the truth and not support any corporate agenda and this includes using the set code of conduct and other available models. Notably, Keller’s documentary is not to blame the media for ethical issues of science. However, the issue underscored on the film indicates the failure of public relation in executing their duty and the failure of the media in helping the public understand science.
Croteau, David, and William Hoynes. Media/Society: Industries, images, and audiences. Sage Publications, 2013.
Kenner, Robert, Merchants of Doubt (Film). Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (Firm), 2015.
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