So, David, it is a strong value of yours that accurate information should be reported by journalists?


Thank you, Mary McGonigle Martin, for that question. I presume, from the tone and the personal way it is phrased (“it is a strong value of yours”), it is meant to suggest that I have some kind of individual obsession with “accurate information.” 


But whatever the intent, it is a question that gets to the heart of why I wrote my new book, The Raw Milk Answer Book, and so I am glad to answer it, regardless of its intent. 


That “accurate information should be reported by journalists” is a fundamental standard of the profession. It is something hammered into you at journalism school, and hammered in further if you work for a reputable publication. Editors at newspapers and fact checkers at magazines are there in large measure to ensure accuracy (as well as grammatical correctness and reader appeal).  They press reporters for the names of their sources on facts and figures, and get them to double and triple check to ensure accuracy. 


I was fortunate to work for The Wall Street Journal right out of Columbia Journalism School, and the paper confirmed my training by placing a huge amount of pressure on reporters to be accurate. Even the slightest screwup in facts in an article could warrant a subsequent printed “correction” and I saw reporters get fired for having too many “corrections” published. 


There was more to the accuracy thing than simply getting the facts straight. The WSJ demanded we report any data in a standard format (still does), so the data can be easily compared, one period to another. Thus, a corporation’s first-quarter 2015 revenues and earnings are compared to first-quarter 2014 revenues and earnings. Historical comparisons are similarly done, using comparable periods. 


The same standard applies to other data reported. It just wouldn’t be acceptable to report in an article, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control does, that there were 979 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations from 2007-2012. The reporter would be expected to press the CDC—how does that six-year period compare to the previous six-year period? How does the six-year period break down year by year? What has been the trend year to year? 


As it turns out, scientists are similarly expected to adhere to certain standards of accuracy and consistency in reporting and interpreting research. Part of the purpose of the Ph.D. thesis that prospective scientists labor over for years is to train scientists in conducting primary research and then reporting data. They are held to strict standards about such things as footnoting and constructing tables. They are subject to a grilling by their teachers and advisers about the veracity of their data. 


I am sure school guidance counselors are similarly held to certain professional standards in how they write their reports on interviews and observations of students. There are rules about privacy, communication with parents, how to handle student and parent questions, and so forth. Counselors who violate standards and cross boundaries can not only get in serious trouble, but hurt the credibility of their colleagues. 


The Internet is putting huge pressure on journalists to play fast and loose with such basic professional standards as confirming facts and story accounts. Just yesterday, Columbia Journalism School issued a report on the now-discredited report of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The report says in part, “Rolling Stone‘s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all…The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone‘s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.” 


Rolling Stone wanted so badly to be the first—among so many competitors—with such a gripping and provocative story that it ignored basic journalistic standards. In the processs, Rolling Stone did a terrible disservice to the growing number of women who have been seriously abused as part of real campus rapes, by creating an image that many of the accusations are simply made up by hysterical and unstable women. 


Generally, the repercussions of ignoring professional standards isn’t as dramatic as in the Rolling Stone case. Certainly that is the case with all the inaccurate reporting by the media and science-medical communities about raw milk. 


But the repercussions are there, nonetheless, and just as insidious. I’d say the CDC’s credibility among a small but growing segment of Americans has been seriously undermined by its repeated release of questionable data about raw milk. So, you might ask, what difference does that make? A few wackos who didn’t believe the CDC anyway are now more cynical. Who cares?


Well, supposing there is some kind of serious and widespread public health problem posed by raw milk in the future, a situation in which people in a certain region should refrain from consumption for a period. But because raw milk drinkers have become so cynical about government pronouncements, they ignore the problem, and many become ill. That would be primarily the CDC’s responsibility, because it made the decision long ago that the end justifies the means—that because it’s decided that we need to rid the U.S. of raw milk sales, any lie or distortion of the data is acceptable. 


I should add that there have been distortions and misstatements from the pro-raw-milk side. One has been the frequent claim that pathogens can’t grow in grass-fed milk. Another has been that raw milk is lower risk for illness from pathogens than pasteurized milk. Such assertions do a disservice by discouraging raw milk drinkers to check out the facts and their suppliers as carefully as they might otherwise. 


And that gets back to why I decided to write The Raw Milk Answer Book. I concluded that there was just so much misinformation out there—all in the interests of the end justifying the means—that there needed to be at least one source providing a measure of truth.