Fox News is famous for giving a fair and balanced voice to alternative views, especially when countering scientific consensus with opinions likely to be preferred by the broadcast company's fans. A good example of this is global warming science, which Fox News reporters are required to contradict.
As recently as two weeks ago Fox News personality Lauren Green was following this directive as it applies to eclipses. She earnestly asked, "Does God use the motion of planets to communicate with us?" In her segment, entitled "Is the cosmos telling us the end is near?" she interviewed Cornerstone Church Pastor John Hagee on how God uses the sun, moon and stars to let us know who's boss. The pastor bolstered his claims by saying "This is something you can check on the Internet." The host was fascinated by the topic, but pointed out that there are other opinions. "There are a lot of people who will poo poo any End Time prophesy." Fair and balanced.
The weekend's eclipse coverage was handled very differently. In Fox's story "Rare solar eclipse may be visible Sunday" the only explanation that they gave for the event is that "the moon will blot out the sun..." On matters of science, the Fox News policy until now has been based on instructions from managing editor Bill Sammon, who issued a memo saying, "It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts." In other words, get an opinion from a scientist, and then get another opinion from someone to contradict the scientist. Fair and balanced. Simple as that.
In a major break from this longstanding policy, no alternative theories were provided to explain the eclipse. Given the lack of certainty the part of scientists (the eclipse "may" be visible, according to the title), the story made no mention of the possibility that the entire theory might be wrong.
Is Fox News abandoning its fan base? In a widely reported story, Bill Nye was supposedly booed in Texas for saying that the moon reflects light from the sun. According to Genesis 1:16, "God made two great lights -- the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night." For Fox News to suggest that the moon can block sunlight is just another poke in the eye to the conservative Christians who make up their audience. (It should be pointed out that Bill Nye himself has a somewhat different version of what transpired in Waco).
A few years ago, I became annoyed with the lack of balance by the Albuquerque Journal in their reporting about a lunar eclipse. I wrote the following letter, which was published on Dec. 23, 2010:
"Once again the Journal neglected to provide an alternate theory for the cause of lunar eclipses. What happened to the balanced reporting that allows readers to decide for themselves? The Journal should adhere to a consistent policy and avoid favoring the consensus in astronomy as well as in climate science. Just because the vast majority of scientists agree a lunar eclipse is caused by Earth's shadow doesn't mean that newspapers should ignore the earnest skeptics who believe the moon is being swallowed by a three legged toad."
News editors must grapple with how to treat minority views that go against the grain of science. Is it proper to demand alternative opinions only for some parts of science, but not others? When minority opinions are given, is it better to focus on those that are popular (like the Bible) or should less popular ideas (like three-legged toads) be given equal weight? Should newspaper articles only report scientific consensus (e.g. greenhouse gases cause global warming, and the earth's and moon's shadows cause eclipses), and allow readers suggest alternatives in the letters section? Or should news organizations just adopt the policy recently implemented by the Los Angeles Times, and refuse to publish letters that deny scientific facts?
On a bright note, when it comes to short-term threats that could potentially lead to exposure to lawsuits and loss of revenue, Fox News becomes conservative (in the traditional sense of the word, meaning "risk averse"). They didn't provide an alternative view to the science-based warning not to look at the eclipse without proper filters.