Getting on the same page with Science Journalists

Nature’s online editor Ananyo Bhattacharya wrote a piece for UK paper The Guardian’s science desk that has got me scratching my head today, and judging by the comments at the end of his story, I’m not alone.  I started a discussion with him on Twitter that I want to share here too, because I think it illustrates nicely that there may be a serious gap between what scientists think journalists are about and vice versa.  This discussion won’t make much sense without your reading his piece, so I’ll give you a minute to go and do that…

<whistles>

Done?  OK, so in essence, Bhattacharya’s argument seems to be that it’s OK for scientists to check their quotes intended for an article about their work to make sure they were accurately reproduced, but they have no copy check rights beyond that.  My specific issue is that he’s asking scientists to take a leap of faith that between their quote to the journalist and the news stand, the journalist will not distort, misrepresent or otherwise change the meaning of what was said by way of the surrounding copy.  The problem is, by then it’s too late to do anything about it.  I am just one of the many scientists who at one point or another have been burned by a case of misrepresentation in the press.  But it’s not like Bhattacharya is saying “its OK, trust us, we’ll get it right”, he seems to be saying “never you mind what we do with your quote, that’s our business”. 

“Reporters will give the story an angle that has their reader firmly in mind. The reader is not a scientist’s first concern. “

I read this to mean that the journalist writes for the reader, and is entitled to change the way the material is presented to do so. the phrase “give the story an angle” specifically implies that objectivity may be trumped by a context that may be more appealing to the reader; in other words, style over substance.  This idea is anathema to a scientific community that has a hard enough time explaining the arcane nature of their work, without the issue being clouded by somebody else’s “angle”.  I also object to the idea that the reader is not the scientist’s first concern.  If that were the case, we wouldn’t care what you did with our quotes!  Its precisely because we care what the reader thinks that we go to such efforts to ensure that our work is properly represented.  He goes on:

As a result, researchers can often suggest changes that would flatten the tone, or introduce caveats and detail that would only matter to another specialist in their own field of research.”

Flatten the tone?  That sounds to me like a scientist reining in sensationalistic writing.  As for introducing ceveats and details, that’s where the proverbial devil lives much of the time.  What might seem like a tiny sin of omission to a journalist might be a really big deal to a scientist.  The worst the journalist could be accused of is hyperbole, whereas the scientist might find themselves in hot water or an argument over priority or authority in the science community.  Just look how easily harmless scientific words were twisted (albeit with polotical motives) during the climate-gate email scandal.

Which brings me to the Twitter conversation.  I chimed in after the omnipresent Bora Zivcovik retweeted Martin Robbins’ (also of the Guardian) tweet regarding the story (@Ananyo is Bhattacharya ):

My comment http://lay.si/ke RT @Ananyo: Scientists should not be allowed to copy-check stories about their work http://lay.si/kd

I replied:

What a poor argument. “Flatten the tone” = “reduce sensationalism” & “Introduce details” = “ensure accuracy”! @mjrobbins @Ananyo @BoraZ

Bhattacharya :

@para_sight problem is you guys are not good judges of readability.  and then @para_sight and to be fair, why shld u be? It’s not your job.

Me:

@Ananyo What use readbility without factual accuracy? and then  @Ananyo Aside from which, your statement about judging readability is a mildly insulting gross generalisation

Skipping forward a bit, he says:

@para_sight it’s not about communicating the details of scientist x’s research. our objective is different.

which really raised my eyebrows:

@Ananyo Did I just read you right that a science journalists job is NOT communicating scienctists research??

and he replies:

YES YOU DID RT @para_sight: @Ananyo Did I just read you right that a science journalists job is NOT communicating scienctists research??

@para_sight guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2… here’s what o think it’s for

So I go check out this other piece to see if I can better understand where he’s coming from.  It’s not exactly on point with the conversation, seemingly being more directed at fellow journalists with respect to the Bristish science writing awards, but towards the end it gets better, and I’m still confused:

Now, we all love Brian Cox and a certain amount of good science journalism might be cheerleading for the fascinating or baffling work of scientists. But I believe the best stories, and those that are often poorly represented in the ABSW awards, come from the troubled hinterland where science meets politics and big business

It sounds like he draws a fairly bright line between communicating the contents of new scientific research to the public and a sort of “real journalism”: looking for conflict or drama where science butts up against other spheres of endeavour (interesting that religion was left out).  And here’s where we get to the differing perceptions of scientists and journalists, because I’m pretty sure if you ask most scientists what science journalism is for they’ll say it’s to translate the difficult science they do for the eyes and minds of the public through a skilled journalist’s mastery of language and writing.

 Not surprisingly, Robbins takes Bhattacharya side:

@Ananyo @para_sight Communicating scientists’ research isn’t journalism, it’s PR.

OK, that’s another view point I can’t agree with.  Science communication should be agnostic about all things except enthusiasm.  PR is lots of things, some of them are even good, but agnostic it ain’t!

Ed Yong, whom I respect tremendously, is closer to the middle ground:

@para_sight @Ananyo is right. Sci journalism and sci-comms are different. Overlapping but different.  After I then said that Bhattacharya and I were on different planets, he replied:  @Ananyo @para_sight You’re only on diff planets in that one of you is focusing on good journos/bad scientists; the other on the opposite.

He’s probably right, but even so it means that the perception gulf exists nonetheless.  In that case, perhaps rather than worrying about whether or not scientists should have rights to check articles before they get published, we should focus our energies on a better mutual understanding between scientists and journalists about what our respective goals are, because that’s a much more worrisome and potential damaging problem.  Bhattacharya and I agree on at least one thing, so I’ll give him the last word on that:

@para_sight journalists are from venus, scientists are from mars? but you’re right. journalism or news writing is not a simple affair….

para_sight (138 Posts)

Dr. Alistair Dove is a systematic and ecological parasitologist by training, with broader research interests in the natural history and health of marine animals, especially whale sharks. He is currently Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta USA. His comments here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Georgia Aquarium





56 comments on “Getting on the same page with Science Journalists
  1. I don’t think journalists should allow scientists to check the stories pre-publication at all. Follow up with questions? Yes. Double check any examples they want to give? Yes. Share the story itself for review? No. Here’s why:

    Let’s say you are writing a story and only interviewing one source. Is it okay for that single source to review the story? Sure. But that’s crap journalism. Never rely on one source.

    So, let’s say you’re writing a story and interview 10 sources. Is it okay for ALL of them to review the story? No. You’d end up with conflicting “corrections.” Is it okay to let ONE of them review the story? No. That’s inviting bias — and would, not incidentally, piss off the other nine sources.

    The only way to do it is to do a damn good job of reporting — ask a lot of questions, paraphrase answers back to your sources to make sure you understand them, and do your homework.

    Granted, the vast bulk of my reporting experience was on issues pertaining to policy and research (not necessarily straight-up research findings pieces) — but I think these rules apply across the board. At any rate, it’s my opinion.

  2. One last observation: I think the statement that science journalism is not about communicating the results of scientific research is absurd. That is absolutely what science journalism is — or should be. But it’s not ONLY that. It’s also about exploring/explaining the potential applications (if any) of that research; ditto for the policy ramifications (if any) of that research; as well as any relevant dispute in the scientific community pertaining to the research, etc. I sincerely hope that is what @para_sight was talking about.

    • I (that is Al, aka @para_sight) am absolutely open to a more inclusive definition like the one you propose; I was just worried that Bhattacharya was suggesting that it ISN’T about reporting the contents of new scientific research. That was the head scratcher.

  3. Agreed. If the definition of science journalism doesn’t encompass reporting the contents of new research, well, then what the hell IS it?

  4. Really interesting discussion. Back when I worked in educational publishing, I worked with Wood’s Hole on a piece about deep sea ecosystems relating to Alvin. I remember describing it as a collaboration because we did so many rounds back and forth to make sure it was accurate.

    At the same company I did a piece interviewing Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean and his Republican counterpart Ken Melman. I shortened a lot of their answers and sent them the designed piece for reference. Both of their people came back at me asking for changes and I didn’t even consider it. For a second.

    Looking back on it I see the difference between those two approaches very clearly, but it still seems like a completely natural way of going about writing an informative article. There’s no rule deciding where you cross that line into preventing spin and fact checking. I think each writer finds it with their gut. You just gotta hope they have good guts I suppose.

  5. From the article:

    Imagine reading a controversial news story on climate change and later finding out that the scientist, whose findings you are reading about, had seen almost every word prior to publication. What if the story was about some too-good-to-be-true cancer cure? How about if you found out the researcher was running out of cash and had lodged a grant renewal request with their funding agency? Would it make you more sceptical about the story?

    Look, I’ve seen the Today Show and NBC Nightly News (“Top 10 vegetables to keep you slim and in shape”, etc.), and read the blogs of actual scientists and actual scientific papers. If anyone’s going with the “too good to be true” angle, it’s the reporters themselves, and that’s WHY this sort of thing needs to be done.

    If there’s any reason I don’t trust most news media in general, it’s because I can’t trust them to get more easily verifiable science stories right!

    And the whole issue of scientists having a vested interest in misrepresenting their own work makes very little sense to me. For those scientists that we regard as celebrities — the Neil Tysons and Carl Sagans and such — we do so because of their very close ties with the media; rarely does it seem to me that we remember a scientist’s name because they made a significant finding that got published in the newspaper. (I don’t even know the names of last year’s Nobel laureates, either, for that matter.) So it’s not as though by announcing some breakthrough that a scientist is going to see her name up in lights — the results, understandably, take top billing.

    Furthermore, since it’s hard (not impossible, certainly) to fudge data in a scientific paper without someone noticing due to the system of peer review, it seems that a good reporter who is concerned that the scientist himself is sensationalizing the results should be able to look into the paper and get some sense for himself of whether this claim would hold any water or not. Most scientific blogs I read regularly that papers usually DO discuss the flaws of the papers, such as trial size or fairly low statistical significance.

  6. By the way folks: I think this discussion is an awesome demonstration of the power of social media for improving both science and journalism. I wouldn’t have known of Bhattacharya’s piece but for Twitter, and much of the discussion took place on Twitter because it created a direct communication path between the author and his audience. Genuine dialogue ensued and I feel like we’re all the better for it.

  7. I am going to repost the comment I made on David Kroll’s original post on this topic. (I encourage you the read the whole post & comments).

    “Over the last 2.5 years, I have done way more than my share of media interviews as part of the huge public interest in my research area, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” I think the stories turn out much better when the writers do a quick fact check with me & other sources. The vast majority of corrections I have made are small details that 99% of the public would never notice, but 99% of ocean scientists would.

    I don’t think that journalists realize that MY credibility as an early-career scientist is on the line every time I do an interview. Most scientists don’t know me – I’m a graduate student still trying to finish my very first first-author manuscript. The only thing they know about me is what they see in the media, and when that is factually incorrect they assume that it is my fault, not that of the journalist. It is no honor whatsoever when someone at conference says with a grim expression “Yes, I saw you in that article. You’re quite the celebrity, aren’t you.” I do these interviews because I care about communicating my research to a broad audience, but there is a huge downside and minimal professional benefit (at least, if I wanted to become an academic).

    If journalists want to have a cordial relationship with scientists (and get beyond canned & stilted responses, as Ed says above), fact-checking is an excellent way to build trust. It is true that scientists should understand that journalists need to tell a story and are not required to make scientists’ suggested changes, but I truly think that 90%+ of likely scientists’ edits would not impact the overall thrust of a story. Please, please, please fact-check when possible.”

    • It’s worth thinking about why journalists regularly quote unnamed sources. In some sense, this diminishes the quality of the story, because there’s no way to know the reporter didn’t just make it up. But the practice is accepted, because informants, whistleblowers, political dissidents, etc. would not come forward if they thought their names were going to be revealed, and it would be highly unethical to put them, their families, or their livelihoods in danger by publishing their names after the fact.

      While most scientists won’t be put in mortal danger by factual inaccuracies, their professional reputations can and do suffer. And it’s hard to overstate the importance of professional reputation in science, especially, as Miriam says, for a young scientist without much work to their name yet. If quoting anonymous sources is acceptable, then letting scientific sources review a story on their research should also be acceptable. The public deserves an accurate story, which is one reason to fact-check with the source. But the obligation not to harm one’s sources needlessly is arguably a more important reason.

  8. The problem may not be limited just to the scientist and reporter. A friend of mine was a reporter for a while, and when interviewed for the job was asked “What would you see as your biggest challenge?” His reply: “Getting copy past the sub-editors without them screwing it up.”. Feature writers do tend to have more of a free hand that run-of-the-mill hacks but I have found that even when I have written a scientific name out for them it can still be ‘corrected’…arrgghhh…………….!!!!!!!!!

    Cheers :-)

  9. I’m a fulltime newspaper reporter who has occasionally, over the course of my career, written science stories. Early on, I stuck to the principal of never showing my copy to sources. But then I got a job as a fact checker at a major big city magazine and I discovered how valuable fact checking is for all stories of all kinds. At a magazine there’s more time than at a newspaper, but when I have time, I always call sources and do a paraphrase fact check. It simply improves the quality of the story and engenders trust between reader and journalist and source and journalist.

    With science stories my fact check process has been evolving. I ran a story a few years ago in which I did a paraphrase fact check over the phone, but nonetheless had two significant errors that had been misunderstood when I paraphrased. That was embarrassing for both me and the scientist, who said he’d gotten calls from other scientists accusing him of claiming underserved credit. On a more recent science story, I sent the whole thing to the scientist and his grad student (who had done much of the real work on the study). They sent back a revised story in which they moved paragraphs and changed quotes. I had to call the student and go back over the piece over the phone so I could separate the factual problems (there was one biggie, which I was*very* glad to fix) and their opinion of newspaper style (hilariously incorrect. The story would have read like a journal publication). I believe in the future on a study like that I’m going to send key technical paragraphs to the scientist, and absolutely no quotes (people never like how they sound in a quote). That way they can do the check for accuracy without getting hung up on my phrasing.

    I don’t really see an ethical challenge in doing this. Iw ant the story to be correct. If I change things just to pacify a source, that makes me an unethical journalist. We should only change things when they’re factually wrong, and then we should change them immediatly and without hesitation.

    Bhattacharya seems to think the source-journalist relationship is similar to a funder-scientist relationship, which is silly. A funder can threaten to withhold payments, putting a scientists livelihood in jeopardy. All a source, scientist or not, can do is complaint to my editor. And if the source isn’t complaining specifically about factual inaccuracy, my editor will, most likely, hear them out and then suggest the source write a letter to the editor. It’s really no threat to me at all. If a source and I disagree on style, I win, hands down. I am in absolute control of my story, no matter what changes they want. And when someone threatens to “withdraw their contribution” I gently explain that it’s too late for that. We’ve already done the interview.

    All in all, I don’t really see what Bhattacharya is on about. Science journalism struggles because it’s badly under funded (we’ve lost so many full-time science journalists in the last decade) and because the writers often don’t have time to do enough fact checking, rather than too little. Sending small pieces of copy for review, as long as its understood that the writer isn’t obliged to make any changes, seems like it would be better for everyone.

  10. Eric, I think your approach is a good one. Checking specific facts makes sense. Sending the entire story is when things get dicey, because people then want to wordsmith or insert their news judgment (which is often, as you say, “hilariously incorrect”). Plus, when sending an entire story (or even big chunks of one) to multiple sources who contributed information you often (if not invariably) will get conflicting feedback. In which case, whose corrections do you use? You then have to parse the entire thing through multiple phone calls/emails to separate their corrections of technical fact from their “corrections” of how they want something presented. By simply running the facts by them in the first place, you avoid that problem by only presenting the relevant elements.

    As for the paraphrasing approach — I found it incredibly useful as a reporter, particularly when it came to grasping concepts. But it is less reliable when it comes to the nitty gritty detail. And when it comes to covering science, the details are incredibly important. Combining it with a focused fact-check is a solid way to go.

  11. It’s a little painful to watch this discussion from the outside because I see a lot of good scientists and good journalists talking at odds with one another. It would help if both sides would realise that their mutual perspectives have been shaped by dealing with the worst exemplars of each other’s profession.

    The journalists are forgetting how badly scientists have been burned by unethical, incompetent journalists in the past, and how badly that affects their reputation and their attitude to the press. They are also underestimating the bad reputation that journalists *as a profession* enjoy within the scientific community. A lot of the reaction to Ananyo’s thread was basically incredulity that someone could be talking about lofty ethical rules when a lot of what’s passed off as science journalism doesn’t even pass the most lenient of ethical criteria.

    The scientists are forgetting, as I mentioned on Twitter, that some of their peers are full of sh*t. The basic narrative I’m seeing is: journalists don’t know their stuff; if scientists could correct the copy, it would be much better (see Miriam’s comment above).

    Yes, probably, sure, *when the scientist is reliable*! That’s why I’ve said that sending copy to a disinterested independent third party is a reasonable compromise. But would you also want us to run our copy past Andrew Wakefield, or Satoshi Kanazawa if we were writing about them? No, of course not. Yes, I have chosen deliberately extreme examples, but I could give you many equally problematic if less severe case studies. I worked at a cancer charity for seven years. I had to deal with the fallout of many many scientists overplaying their research, seeking out hype, and just conducting poor science. These are not people you want to have control over what appears in the media.

    Everyone agrees that fact-checking is essential, and the more thorough the better. But a good fact-checking method has to work with both reliable and unreliable scientists, and wholesale copy-checking only does the former. It’s far better to actually do all the requisite homework beforehand, ask the right questions, and most importantly, have a good idea about the limits of your own knowledge. As Matt Shipman says, “Do your homework.”

    • Ed, if I had to bet, I’d put money that a journalist would not send it to a “disinterested third party”, but rather would seek out a person they know to hold an opposing viewpoint. This, to many journalists, seems the very definition of “balance” and therefore a Good and Right thing to do according to all the tenets of journalistic training. In fact, as those on the inside of science know, there is rarely a valid accepted alternative viewpoint, especially for research so new that it’s only test has been the peer review process.

      I digress from my original point of head-scratchery, though, which was Ananyo’s emphatic statement that science journalism is NOT about communicating scientist’s research. That statement right there is the one that reveals to me the gaping chasm between what we think they’re about and what they think they’re about. I would have said that was the very ESSENCE of what they’re about, hence my statement that we’re on different planets.

      Thanks for chiming in, your input always welcome

      • I wanted to chime in as a science journalist to say that Ed Yong is completely correct on every count. The scientists seem totally baffled by Ananyo Bhattacharya’s perspective, but he is absolutely right and all of his points are very important for scientists to understand. But that doesn’t mean that scientists’ complaints about journalists are wrong either. We’re both right.

        I think there’s definitely a culture clash here. I’m guessing you’re probably annoyed that Bhattacharya didn’t list a bunch of caveats to the no-prior-review rule. Of course journalists should strive to get everything accurate, double-check things they don’t understand and work rigorously to make sure everything is truthful. That is absolutely our job and you should hold us to it!

        But the prior review rule is so so so key to journalism and this IS a major difference between scientists and journalists. You will not hear too many journalists brush this one off lightly.

        Scientists hear the no-prior-review rule and go nuts. Some of them refuse to talk to me (until I charmingly convince them). That’s because scientists are absolute control freaks when it comes to people talking about their precious data. Rightfully so! Without prior review there is the slightest chance that something could go wrong. A number could be off. A journalist might not highlight the really cool, important part of the research to the scientific community and just focus on the fact, for instance, that embryonic stem cells are being used.

        But then journalists hear scientists saying that they think the no-prior-review rule makes them bad journalists and go nuts. That’s because journalists are absolute control freaks when it comes to the power dynamics of their own copy. Rightfully so!

        Now this list is going to be longer because you, the author, said you don’t understand the perspective of a journalist and I’m sharing! Here it goes:

        * BULLIES: You might believe that all scientists are good and fair and many, if not most of them, are. But there are some real egotistic bullies out there and if you’re writing regularly about science, you’re bound to come into contact with them.

        One time I picked up the phone to call one of the quoted authors of a paper I was writing about directly. He was kind, courteous and gave me beautiful quotes that explained his research in a simple, intelligible way. Then I got a call from a flack at his university who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I had not called the most senior author on the paper, and he threw a tantrum and threatened the job of this flack if he wasn’t quoted in the article. This scientist throws a lot of weight at the university and brings in a ton of research dollars. I guess the flack was lucky, because I had plenty of time that day and agreed to call him — because why turn down an opportunity to learn more if you have enough time? The researcher didn’t say anything that the other guy hadn’t said and he was less eloquent, but I included a quote from him so that I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time (although, honestly, I had!).

        Prior review really gives scientists an invitation to play these bullshit, egotistical mind games with journalists. But this is the exact sort of thing that scientists freak out about that is absolutely wrong, has nothing to do with science and is totally at odds with the purpose of journalism. And it happens ALL THE TIME. You might not believe me, but that’s because you’ve never been a journalist.

        *CREDIT: Another thing scientists worry about that have nothing to do with science: giving proper credit. I love giving everyone the credit they deserve but if I have 10 column inches in the paper, I’m not going to list everyone involved. I am a local reporter, so I’ve focused on the research scientists are doing at local universities. Often, I’ll write about a research topic that was really cool, even though the local university isn’t taking the lead. But I will still spend most of my time and most of the story focusing on the local university, because no one opens a local paper to hear about some research on the other side of the world (we’re not going to compete with Scientific American, sorry). They want to know how people in their backyard contributed to a particular project. It sounds provincial, but hey that’s local news. (I’m sure when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the newspapers in Ohio had their own take on the hometown hero!) I’m not going to say the local guys did it single-handedly, but I might only have one line explaining the rest of the project. I might not name the scientists on the other side of the world at all. This is okay. This is MY local story. So-and-so lead scientist will hopefully get his due by a hometown paper or a national paper, but that’s not my problem. I will not apologize.

        * LAWSUIT THREATS: The worst, worst, worst case scenario is that a researcher could see something they don’t like in the copy and threaten to sue. OK, the worst, worst, worst case is that the researcher does sue, but journalists get threatened all the time. Even a hollow threat can be intimidating, especially if you’re not the New York Times or a veteran reporter. And this is terrible. In the US, we’re probably okay, but it could be dicey elsewhere. Even in the US, it’s scary to be sued by someone who doesn’t stand a chance in court. Journalists — particularly at small, failing newspapers — sweat frivolous lawsuits. A scientist could allege defamation because hey, he told the journalist it was wrong, and if he prints it now, he could say that the writer was writing untruths willfully — even if it was an honest mistake. But what if the scientist doesn’t get back to you in time and the story has already gone to press? (This ALWAYS happens — journalists move on a much, much faster timeline than scientists.) What if the “mistake” isn’t even a mistake and the scientist just isn’t crazy about the phrasing and he’s blowing a lot of hot steam?

        The above examples are only when we’re talking about relatively non-controversial research. All of the above can arise when you’re writing a straightforward research story without too many sources or any obvious controversy. And I know you think many journalists are slime-buckets who only play up sexy angles, but that’s unfair for two reasons. First, it’s untrue. I, like many, many science journalists, spend a lot of time writing science stories that might be “uncontroversial” or “unsexy” but in an interesting, thoughtful way (I’ve gotten props from the Knight Science Journalism Tracker!). Second, I hate to break it to you, but controversy is sometimes really, really important — even to scientists.

        What if a journalist gets a tip that there is fraud involved in a project? I know you think this is a problem for scientists, but it’s not. It is not the journalist’s job to wait and see what the scientific community’s response is. Hopefully, the response is swift and appropriate, but if the journalist does his homework (and this is important: fact-checking, source-checking, being fair and accurate to the accused, withholding shaky details until confirmation) and finds out there are serious issues, there is NO reason for the journalist to hold back. None. Zip. Zero.

        There are so many more controversies that have nothing to do with right-wing attacks on science. What if a lead scientist exhibits a disturbing pattern of sexual harassment? What if certain projects are sucking up a lot of resources without having much to show but certain scientists are afraid to speak up and alienate these sources? Hey, what if certain really great, really important projects aren’t getting funding precisely because of bozo right-wing attacks? Isn’t that a story, too?

        These are the things that science journalists worry about. We are not mere ciphers for scientists to tell us what they did today. That’s only a small piece of the story. We — like every other kind of journalist — are dealing with humans, power plays, huge sums of money, egos and controversy. Do we fuck up sometimes? Absolutely. It sucks. It’s embarrassing. These people should be called out. Does that mean we have to cede all our authority to scientists? NO WAY. That’s not journalism. Not even close.

  12. I’ll blog about this in more detail, but a few points are worth bringing up, especially as I’m quoted above.

    1) I agree very much with Ed’s comment above.

    2) Both science and journalism are about truth. In order to find truth we have to interrogate the world around us. We have to do so with imperfect senses, and the knowledge that our sources of information could be wrong. If a scientist assumes that the papers they cite are always correct, and that the peers they speak to are always accurate or truthful in what they present, then they are a pretty poor scientist. Exactly the same holds true for journalists, and science journalists.

    3) THERE IS NOTHING SPECIAL ABOUT SCIENCE. Scientists are not somehow above other public figures, their work is no more complex than the issues that, say, politicians or economists or football managers deal with (often far less so), they are no more trustworthy than other public figures, and they should be subject to the same standard of scrutiny as everyone else. Some of the comments on Ananyo’s piece are spectacular in their arrogance on these points.

    4) My point quoted in the post wasn’t very clear due to Twitter’s brevity. I’m not saying that journalists shouldn’t report research – that’s daft. My point was, if you think your job as a journalist is solely to take a scientist’s paper and help them communicate it to the public, then you are not doing journalism, you are doing PR. Yes, reporting and explainng are vital parts of journalism, but Journalists shouldn’t simply report what people are saying, they should challenge it, interrogate it, and help the public establish the truth about it. That’s what separated the top journalists from the rest.

    • To both (2) and (4) I would say that challenging and interrogating is absolutely not the job of science journalists, it’s the job of OTHER SCIENTISTS. That’s what peer review is for and why it’s such a big part of the scientific method. The hard part of ensuring the robustness of the result being reported has already been done by the time the work is published. What science journalists need to do is help explain and translate that work for the public that so often paid for it.

      Which leads me to (3) which is that there ABSOLUTELY IS SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT SCIENCE and the sooner people understand that the better. Politics and economics are not the same, not designed to seek factual truths, and so to compare them to scientific approaches is wonky logic in the extreme. It’s important that people understand that this does NOT mean that scientists think they are better than everyone else, as you imply – that would indeed be arrogant – just that when they make one of those carefully-worded, caveat-laden, detail-ridden statements, it is made with the confident backing of tested evidentiary support. Politicians don’t have to do that, indeed a lot of the time it’s likely to be the very opposite of what they want!

      • “To both (2) and (4) I would say that challenging and interrogating is absolutely not the job of science journalists”

        Then you’re wrong on this point. Journalists should always ask questions and challenge, otherwise they’re not being journalists.

        “What science journalists need to do is help explain and translate that work for the public that so often paid for it.”

        They don’t need to do this at all. In fact it’s the scientists themselves who need to do this, as they’re the ones who have taken the money. What science journalists (good ones at least) aim to do is, as with any other area of life, help people to understand what’s happening, put it in context, and show what is new/interesting/exciting and what isn’t.

        “That’s what peer review is for and why it’s such a big part of the scientific method.”

        Peer review is not about establishing truth. A paper isn’t ‘true’ because it’s been peer reviewed. Peer review just establishes a bare-minimum benchmark of quality suggesting a paper is fit to be discussed more seriously in wider debate. A scientist or journalist who works on the basis that a paper is true or correct just because it’s been peer reviewed is not a very good scientist or journalist.

        “when they make one of those carefully-worded, caveat-laden, detail-ridden statements, it is made with the confident backing of tested evidentiary support.”

        Nah, sorry, but this is right back to the scientists-as-priesthood mode of thinking. There’s no real prior reason for a journalist to treat the pronouncements of a scientist with any more reverence than the pronouncements of a politician, and the idea that scientists walk around making “carefully-worded, caveat-laden, detail-ridden statements with the confident backing of tested evidentiary support” all the time is just naive. Scientists are as prone to bias, distortion, misrepresentation and irrational quirks as members of any other public-facing profession, and their statements deserve the same level of scrutiny.

        • I have no quibble with most of that, especially not the bits about journalists being rigorous, but there is one very large problem sticking in my craw–do science journalists have the knowledge base to accurately criticize and judge a paper? I apologize in advance if I give insult, because I know this sounds disparaging, but I really am trying not to. I know some science journalists are also scientists, and that’s fair enough…but many of you aren’t. And even the scientists may be unqualified to report on stuff outside their own field; I’m in biomedicine and I wouldn’t dare comment on a paper about, say, the latest uses of buckyballs. Certainly it is sometimes possible to do give criticism even without specialist knowledge, but other times even seemingly-reasonable criticism can be wrong just as a result of lacking scientific context. Maybe the paper deals with an exceptional situation where variables are known not to behave as they otherwise would. Maybe something that sounds theoretically impossible has been empirically demonstrated in previous work. You question whether a peer-reviewed paper is necessarily true (and I agree, it isn’t), but how do you judge? It’s just that I can see a reasonable, ethical, intelligent journalist who does the research getting it wrong anyway, not out of any intrinsic flaw, but just because some of this arcana takes decades to master. Is that a fair concern?

          • That’s absolutely a fair concern. But journalists, like scientists, don’t operate in a vacuum. “Doing your homework” extends beyond reading up on a subject. It involves talking to other scientists about the subject. The next obvious question is: how does the journalist pick scientists to talk to? Some reporters may seek out other researchers that they know have conflicting views, but I don’t think most would. And if it’s a subject you don’t know much about, it’s not difficult to identify relevant experts. NAS, NRC and AAAS, for example, are all good resources.

  13. “journalists don’t know their stuff; if scientists could correct the copy, it would be much better.”

    It’s not just scientists who believe this, as Ed knows–also politicians, economists, cops–everybody thinks if they could only get their hands on the copy before it gets printed…

    I have a standard way of dealing with scientists who say they insist on seeing their quotes in context in the article before publication: I don’t call them back. After all, I called them because I made the decision that they know what they’re doing as scientists. Perhaps they could extend me the same professional courtesy and assume, just as a hypothesis, that I know what I’M doing.

  14. Again, take your statement about “communicating scientist’s research” and apply it to someone like Wakefield or Kanazawa or perhaps any of the many crap studies that fill up space on places like Eurekalert and ScienceDaily. In fact, just consider your own field and think about the last time that you saw a paper that made you facepalm, or the last time you reviewed a manuscript harshly. Still interested in having that communicated? Or do you want it probed, analysed, investigated etc.?

    When everything is hunky-dory, journalism does look a lot like communicating research (that’s what you’re mainly thinking about). When research is dodgy, journalism looks very very different (that’s what Ananyo’s mainly thinking about). That’s all Ananyo was saying, and why I said that journalism/communication are overlapping but distinct. There’s not a gaping chasm – you’re on the same rock, but you’re looking at different parts of it.

  15. Also let me just add that it is a little galling when those of us who care about making the profession better try to discuss good practice, only to have the response be “I bet most journalists wouldn’t even bother with that.”

    Yes.

    We know.

    That’s why we’re trying to discuss good practice. ;-)

    • To this post from Ed — YES. Also, to be totally transparent here, I’m a FORMER reporter. I’m now employed as a science writer by a university. I still do the occasional freelance piece, but basically I’m a flack. So, in a sense, I’ve been arguing against my own best interests in this thread. As a result, you now know that I’m: A). sincere; B). stupid; or C). both.

    • Did I say they wouldn’t bother? NO, I said that they wouldn’t consult the disinterested 3rd party, they’d find a highly-interested, diametrically-opposed party, because that’s what journalistic training tells them to do, under the guise of either finding “balance” or finding “conflict”.

      I don’t think science journalists are lazy, I just think they misunderstand a lot of the time what makes science as a subject fundamentally different from other fields. I offer Martin Robbins’ response response above as evidence.

      • I completely agree that science is a fundamentally different subject from other fields, but the salient point from Martin’s reply is that scientists are not fundamentally different from other people. For every scientist trying to communicate good and well-evidenced research there’s a Satoshi Kanazawa or a Susan Greenfield. That’s at the extreme end, but more generally scientists can and do hype the importance of their research, exaggerate its applications, downplay its problems, and even make unsubstantiated comments that they wouldn’t get away with in the peer-reviewed literature. That’s not to say all scientists do, or even a majority do, but scientists are still human. As a young scientist myself I understand and agree with most of your concerns, but I still think there needs to be a compromise where journalists are able to be critical of their sources or whatever they’re reporting on.

        I think something that’s getting slightly lost in all this is that many scientists also do science journalism. They blog, write pieces for larger institutions, or whatever, but they’re a part of both spheres. Treating this discussion as if scientists and science journalists are separate non-overlapping groups misses a large part of the picture.

    • On the other side of the fence, it is quite, quite galling to be told that what scientists do is about as complicated as what politicians and economists and football managers do (and sometimes less so), when I am going to have to spend the next twelve years (on top of four already done) in dedicated apprenticeship to even begin to have my opinions respected by my peers, and when I KNOW that that time-frame of apprenticeship is fully justified.

      So…drinks all round? :D

  16. I also want to state that this conversation and the people in it represent the very BEST of both fields, IMHO. Here are scientists and journalists alike making impassioned arguments and using social media tools to do it. I suspect that most of the problem people on both sides of the fence would (a) not be self-aware enough to engage in such discussions and (2) not use social media to do it. It’s an exciting time to be part of the evolution of the way science is communicated, and I think ALL of us are trying to help improve that process.

  17. What Ed and Martin said plus – my objection in my tweet was to the use of the term ‘communicating’. Journalists are not ‘communicators’ – ie they are not a conduit for a scientist’s results. For better, and sometimes for worse, they are interpreters, challengers etc. I hope that helps people to understand where I was coming from with my tweet.

    “Ed, if I had to bet, I’d put money that a journalist would not send it to a “disinterested third party”, but rather would seek out a person they know to hold an opposing viewpoint.”

    Hmm. I think Ed’s right – we’re looking at the worst practices and suggesting that they are standard practice. If I got copy where I could see someone was engaging in this sort of straw-manning, then I wouldn’t use them again.

    In the UK the newspapers that really wind people up as having sensationalist or inaccurate coverage of science have sensationalist, slanted coverage about pretty much everything else. Often, for some papers, shifting copy has become more important than journalistic ethics etc. But that’s a problem way wider than bad coverage of science.

    Scientists also forget the sheer volume of stuff we’re talking about here too. As an example – we publish maybe 30+ news stories and 1-2 features a week at Nature. We issue about one or two corrections a month. We have a very strict line on accuracy – if we think we’ve got it wrong, the story -will- be corrected. All in all, that’s roughly an error in about 1-2% of stories. I’m not sure what the rate of mistakes in broadsheet science news stories is (specially those written by science correspondents) but I’d bet it’s pretty low too.

    Given the deadlines most journalists work too – I don’t think that’s too bad. As an aside, I wonder what the rate of mistakes in academic papers is?

    • I now understand what you and Martin (and to a degree Ed) are saying about journalists not being a conduit for science, which is a shame, because that’s exaclty what science (and the public, although they may not know it)needs, perhaps moreso right now than ever before (climate change, the rise of antiscience neoconservatism etc.). So who’s going to do that? Does that mean it really IS up to scientists to be their own advocates directly to the public? As an experiment I did that earlier this year for my paper about a huge whale shark aggregation we found, by publishing in open access, skipping the press release and then blogging about the work here. It was pretty successful, but that took concerted effort on my part and was aided by the sexy nature of the topic at hand. Are we really asking hard core physics or maths folks to do that for themselves? I dont think that would end well.

      I do think that journalists challenging the contents of science is a bit like the big bad wolf huffing and puffing at the little piggies house of bricks. Except in rare cases (e.g. #arseniclife), the hard work of evaluating the rigour of the work has already been done by other scientists. Sure you can probe those doing the science or the manner or constructs in which it was done, but I would argue that that doesn’t make you a science journalist, it makes you an investigative journalist just like any other field. And even if you find problems with the science, so what? The great thing about science is that it’s self healing, which is why I don’t worry about the rate of errors you refer to above. If there are errors, they will become apparent in time and be either corrected or cast aside by the scientific community, whether journalists uncover them or not. It would seem to me that journalistic time spent challenging the ideas of new science is time that could be better spent explaining that science to an increasingly remote public.

      • “that’s exaclty what science (and the public, although they may not know it)needs, perhaps moreso right now than ever before (climate change, the rise of antiscience neoconservatism etc.). So who’s going to do that? Does that mean it really IS up to scientists to be their own advocates directly to the public?”

        You’re confusing two very different things, the issues and the people.

        Science journalists should be highlighting important issues (like climate change) and explaining their importance to the public. That’s not the same as ‘advocating scientists’. To put this in context with a political analogy, that’s like saying that in order to highlight government waste journalists should be advocates for the Taxpayers Alliance (right-wing lobbying group in the UK). Do you get the difference?

        Journalists should be aiming to promote truth and understanding, not a particular person or group of people. That’s the difference between journalism and lobbying. If you want to advocate your particular research then you need to get out there and do it. It’s not up to journalists to do it for you (unless you can convince some of them that it’s genuinely important or interesting or whatever).

        Except in rare cases (e.g. #arseniclife), the hard work of evaluating the rigour of the work has already been done by other scientists.

        This is just so completely wrong. Firstly, the hard work of evaluating the rigour of the work has rarely been done by other scientists. Often universities and research groups publicize the results before the paper has even been published, and peer review is not particularly rigorous in any case.

        Secondly, many papers published are poor in quality and those mistakes and problems are often picked up by journalists or bloggers. Just looking at my last few posts, one rips apart a poor paper that received a lot of publicity (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2011/sep/14/1) and another challenges a scientist who has made unsupported claims in the media (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2011/aug/08/1). It’s crazy that you think ArsenicLife is a rare case. There are scientists who spend their whole careers pushing distorted and misleading info out to the media, which journalists need to challenge.

        Thirdly, debates in science often run on for years or decades, splitting fields. Dawkins Selfish Gene model, for example. In those instances, it’s no use journalists simply reporting both sides, they need to examine each case and give their readers a clear and fair overview.

        It would seem to me that journalistic time spent challenging the ideas of new science is time that could be better spent explaining that science to an increasingly remote public.

        Why should we explain something that we don’t know is true? This is like a politician saying “well democracy would be so much better if you just explained to people what I want them to hear.” No it wouldn’t, it would make journalists the regurgitators of propaganda and bullshit.

        As far as journalism is concerned, scientists are no different to politicians. No different at all.

        • OK, “advocates” was a poor choice of words on my part. My meaning was simply “who is going to explain the science to the public?” if that is not the job of science journalists. Ananyo says thats for sci commers, whoever they are.

          You say that “Journalists should be aiming to promote truth and understanding”, but thats exactly what science IS: truth about nature and an understanding of that nature, so hopefully you can see why I struggle to rationalise that with you and Ananyo saying its not the job of journalists to disseminate science to the public. You say that journalists shouldn’t be promoting particular research or people, but reporting a particular paper or the work of a particular lab is not taking sides. Science comes in discrete quanta of work done usually by individuals and small groups. Telling their story doesn’t mean the journalist has somehow aligned themselves philosophically or politically with that person or the subject of their research. Chances are there are no sides to take anyway, there isn’t a debate, isnt an opposing view, isn’t even an alternative; 99.9% of science gets “elected unopposed”. When I wrote my whale shark aggregation paper, there wasnt an immediate howl of derision from the anti-whale-shark lobby, it was just cool new data about the worlds largest fish. I’m sorry if that makes 99.9% of science uninteresting to journalists, but it still needs to be explained to the public.

          • Just a quick note on who some science communicators are, outside of journalism. There tend to be two groups: scientists who are themselves communicators, and paid science communicators (like me) who work for research institutions. I won’t spend a lot of time on scientists who are communicators, instead referring you to a few examples (and I’m sure you know many more): Kevin Zelnio himself, Rob Dunn, Scicurious, Carin Bondar, etc.

            The second group, which I think of as science flacks, is highly variable. Some of them are very good. Some are not. That’s humans for you. (For the record, I like to think I’m one of the good ones.) Our job is to work with scientists to help them explain their work, articulate the qualifiers, place it in context, etc. However, we are NOT journalists. We work with the scientific team, not outside it. That’s a pretty huge difference. One of the biggest problems we (science communicators) face, is getting scientists to work with us at all. I work for a large university, and help explain dozens of research efforts each year. However, I’d say that over half of our research faculty have never worked with my office. They’re doing work — often very interesting work — they just don’t want to talk about it with P.R. folks (like me). That’s an observation, not a complaint. I’m not in the arm-twisting business. I mention it, because I think that’s fairly common. Many researchers have access to science communicators through their institutions, but choose not to use them. Of course, their science communicators may stink, but that’s an entirely different issue.

  18. Reporting on scientific discoveries without examining their social context (in the press or elsewhere) would be a disaster. Many examples of scientists being bullish about discoveries that turned out not to be such an unqualified good (nuclear power, GM – the list is endless). Also use of sci in govt and the way advice is given/received is absolutely vital in an age where science+tech have such an important impact on people’s lives. Off top of my head – Sellafield and Cumbrian farmers is a classic case study of science advice gone badly wrong.
    As for who does the sci communicating – there’s been fairly decent budgets eet aside in the UK and US for these activities and the profession of sci commer has been around a while now – it’s a distinct role from sci journalist.

    • So are you saying that a Science Communicator relays and translates science for the public and a Science Journalist interprets/challenges that science in the context of the present zeitgeist, is that it? Do the sci commers work in major media outlets like newspapers and TV stations? I’m asking because I genuinely don’t have a sense of who these folks are and how/where they work. The old model went Science –> Press release –> Journalist –> News article –> Public. Now we’ve added Science –> Social media –> Public. Where are the sci commers in all this? Am I a sci commer? Is that what Ed does?

  19. para_sight said: “You say that “Journalists should be aiming to promote truth and understanding”, but thats exactly what science IS: truth about nature and an understanding of that nature, so hopefully you can see why I struggle to rationalise that with you and Ananyo saying its not the job of journalists to disseminate science to the public.”

    Well science is and it isn’t. Science as a whole is a process moving towards the truth, but individual scientists, scientific announcements and bits of research aren’t necessarily about that at all. Often they’re about personal glory, vested interests, bias, commercial considerations, pleas for funding and so on.

    Science journalists should seek to educate the public about scientific issues, but it’s not our job to specifically pimp your particular bit of research for you. In the same way, political journalists should aim to educate the public about political issues, not pimp a particular politician’s speech or policy.

    “Chances are there are no sides to take anyway, there isn’t a debate,”

    You’re confusing ‘debate’ with ‘challenge’ here. There may not be any debate about your work, but it should still be covered critically, and you should still be challenged on the key points of it. Good journalism isn’t about relentlessly manufacturing debate even where none exists, but it should seek to ask questions and challenge statements that are made. If All a journalist does is repeat what you said in different words, that isn’t really helping the public to know whether or not to trust you.

    • “Well science is and it isn’t. Science as a whole is a process moving towards the truth, but individual scientists, scientific announcements and bits of research aren’t necessarily about that at all. Often they’re about personal glory, vested interests, bias, commercial considerations, pleas for funding and so on.”

      No, science just is. PEOPLE may not be (including the Wakefields of the world), but science itself just is. Look, when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Science stories will only be about glory, vested interests etc if you as journalists make them about those things. Stick to the science itself and it becomes a non-problem. Oh right though, that would make you science communicators and not journalists.

      “If All a journalist does is repeat what you said in different words, that isn’t really helping the public to know whether or not to trust you”

      Yes it is! The major impediment to public trust in and acceptance of science is that they just don’t get it, frequently because we as scientists have sucked at explaining ourselves. If we/you explain it to them in a way that they DO get, using the language that we all possess and not just the one scientists possess, then they can make up their own mind about what they do and don’t accept. Science will keep marching on either way, but it sure would be nice to bring the public along on the journey of discovery

      • “Science stories will only be about glory, vested interests etc if you as journalists make them about those things”

        If you think this is what Ed and I are talking about, then you’re completely missing the point here. This isn’t about sensationalizing, it’s about basic fact checking. You are a source, like all sources you are biased about what you do (all human beings are biased), and it’s part of the job of a journalist to unpick the truth from the biased version of the truth that you would inevitably provide.

        It’s not about trying to create a debate, it’s about the unarguable fact that all witnesses are fallible, all humans are biased, all research papers will contain some subjective elements, and historians and journalists have to account for these things by asking pertinent questions.

        ““If All a journalist does is repeat what you said in different words, that isn’t really helping the public to know whether or not to trust you”

        Yes it is! “

        No, it isn’t. Why should anybody trust what you say, just because you’ve said it? Trust in what you say has to be earned. It’s earned when people challenge what you say, and you can show that it’s right. If journalists simply repeat your words without challenging them, without you having to answer even the most basic and obvious questions about what you’ve done, then there’s precious little reason for anyone to trust you.

        • I’m not missing the point at all. Ananyo directed me to his other article as evidence of what he thinks science journalism is all about. We weren’t talking about fact checking anymore, which was a separate and previous part of the discussion. That aside, there are biases in people, of course, but the nature of science serves to remove as many of those biases as possible – that’s half the point. And it works, which is what makes your continuous comparison of scientists with politicians absurd to me. One builds a profession around trying to stay objective, and the other is as subjective as they come and doesn’t care who knows it.

          To your second point: people do, will, and should afford professionals in any field a certain inherent amount of trust by virtue of their training, qualifications, track record and reputation. If an engineer tells me the bridge isn’t safe, then I ain’t crossing it. I’m not going to wait for a journalist to ask her 20 questions before I believe her. I don’t consider her qualifications (or mine, or yours, or anyone’s) “precious little reason” to trust them, I consider them a bloody good reason.

          You talk as if the journalist is some kind of white knight who’s going to ride in and protect the public from deception by the ulterior motives of their sources, but by that logic the journalist is no more trustworthy than any other professional. You may have codes of ethics (even covering fact checking) but so do scientists, engineers and most other disciplines. Why should people not suspect journalists of injecting their own biases? If everyone injects their own bias, then its a zero sum game and we’re back to square one.

          I maintain that a lot of the energy and publication space spent challenging science might be better spent helping explain it to the public, including what you call putting it in context. There may be occasions where you can uncover problems in scientific subjects, but for every one of those, thousands of worthy papers go unexplained and ignored so that eventually whole fields become so far removed from public understanding that the task of fixing the situation seems fairly hopeless. Its not (all) journalist’s fault: scientists themselves, educators, PR, etc all have roles to play. I guess what I am saying is that I consider that challenge to be a higher calling for all of us than picking away in search of the 0.1% of shoddy or flawed science that might sell more papers because its wrong or involves conflict, but will eventually go by the scientific wayside anyway because of the way the method works.

  20. Wow! This is awesome! Alistair, get out of my brain!

    Before I step into all this, I don’t know any of you personally but well done to all of you. I hope everyone goes back to their peers and gets them all to read all of this.

    I am an emerging biologist still finishing my PhD. I have only really begun to deal with the media in the last 18 months, but when it happened it came on like an assault and we, as scientists, are not formally trained to deal with it at all. And like it’s been said above, many (likely most) are terrible at it and journalists have developed potentially poor ways of dealing with those scientists. But, the ivory tower of science is crumbling and with the changes that Alistair pointed out that scientists can go to the public through social media, there needs to be a reassessment about what each of our fields “responsibilities” are in educating the public on the issues. If we can agree that this is where our missions meet.

    Scientists need to make it their responsibility to communicate their science clearly to the public…we MUST be the mystical “science communicators” who don’t seem to exist. So, I agree that this is not the job of the journalists. You are not our pimps, or lobbyists for our issues as has been pointed out. I get it, journalists are not really doing their job if the scientists get copy edits on the final product, we might as well write the communication pieces ourselves. And we will.

    But journalists must realize the weight that their words carry vs. the same words coming from a “scientist”. Martin (Hi, nice to meet you in silica – I’m Shane), you speak of the public’s TRUST. Well, for one reason or another, journalists have it and scientists, or experts in general in today’s society, do not. Michael Specter of The New Yorker has talked and written at length about science denial in the western world. Society has lost faith in science and so people are generally dubious of scientists, and maybe they should be. I have always said that if you’re not outraged, you are not paying attention! But the problem is that once there is convincing proof or evidence one way or the other, we need to start accepting it. So if the public is constantly being fed stories that are judged, reinterpreted, debated, balanced out, two-sided, or any of the other words we have used here today; then, the disconnect between science and the public grows. As an institution Science’s job is to reconnect society to the environment in which it lives (and I don’t necessarily mean that in the green movement way). Journalists must make it their responsibility to do all the digging they see fit and interview those needed, but not to change the arguments the scientists are making to fit their story and not make debate when there is none (because it’s that “apparent” debate that give you the street cred you are fighting here to keep). If journalists do not do this due diligence, and some do not, then, unlike you suggest Martin, you do not have the authority to judge whether or not the public should trust us. Martin, this is where you and I differ, journalists are not a filter. The public can decide on their own if the scientists are trustworthy. The reason they don’t trust us as a community is partly because the science is not communicated clearly by either of our professions.

    In my view and minimal experience with all this is it comes down to this: We will not want to be your editors, if you are not ours.

  21. As a scientist-turned-journalist, I must say I find this conversation somewhat frustrating and disappointing. I approach journalism as I did science – as a critical, rigorous search for truth. As others have already pointed out, the gaps between science and journalism primarily come from worst-case scenarios and misunderstandings. I had hoped that an exchange between intelligent, respected individuals from each profession could develop greater understanding. Instead, I find each ‘side’ entrenched and rehashing old arguments. “You are wrong” is not language that will get anybody onto the same page. Nor will arguments based on stereotypes. Perhaps what is called for is a modicum of respect and a willingness to challenge one’s own dogmas.

    • I’m sorry you feel that way; I reckon it’s been a great conversation! Spirited, but civil, and I learned an important lesson that Science Journalists discriminate themselves from Science Communicators and consider themselves to have a critical function of challenging and critically evaluating science. Whether I agree with those views or not, it will certainly change the way I interact with them in the future. I told Martin, Ed and Ananyo that I would love to discuss it further over beers, and I’ll make that offer again here publically

  22. Never trust anything written by anyone who feels the need to hide behind a pseudonym. It is invariably tosh. (See above.)

    • Michael, Alistair Dove doesn’t hide behind a pseudonym if that is what you are implying. Para_Sight and Al are freely discoverable in the *about* section of DSN. I have no idea with a tosh is, but please stay on point and don’t detract with flagrant, unfounded dismissals of the author’s viewpoint. If i am wrong in this then your comment was unclear. Thanks, Kevin Zelnio (Asst Editor for DSN)

  23. I am returning to the party pretty late, but hopefully there’s still a few beers left for me? Anyway, I wanted to a) respond to Ed’s thoughtful comment above, about seeking a disinterested third party and b) respectfully disagree with my most illustrious blogmate Al/para_sight.

    In regards to a disinterested third party, perhaps it is different in large fields like cancer research, but there is usually no such thing in smaller fields. I know almost every scientist who works on marine debris, have met them in person, and have collaborated/criticized/gone to sea with a good portion of them. This is true in many subfields. There’s no way a journalist could know about the intricacies of these relationships (e.g, who asked who a bitchy question at a conference last year), but chances are your third party is not disinterested at all.

    This leads into my disagreement with Al, and my agreement with Martin et al. I want journalists to be more factually correct (as in my comment above), but also more critical of the larger issues. I see this as completely different than fact-checking with scientists to see if the science is correct – my main reaction to Ananyo’s article is that it would be a pretty wussy journalist who let a simple fact-check with a scientist change his/her entire article. (Sorry, Ananyo).

    Great science journalism puts discoveries in context. To use our own research as examples, Al’s work on whale sharks may not have social/political connotations, and therefore “this is cool!”-type reporting may be appropriate. However, my work on trash in the oceans DOES have social/political connotations (e.g., plastic bag bans that have economic consequences) and therefore should be looked at with a critical eye towards those issues. In my time dealing with the press, I have been asked very few hard questions by journalists. This is probably due to the decline of science journalism, because hard questions require a familiarity with a particular issue that generalists cannot necessarily develop.

    I should mention that the Eric Wolff who posted above is my husband, so I have spent a lot more time with talking with journalists than most scientists. :)

  24. Pingback: Readbacks and Researchers | Alan Dove, Ph.D.

  25. You’re on a different planet than the Guardian op-ed / Nature writer because as a scientist you’re held to standards and your credibility is on the line.
    Credibility to a journalist has an entirely different meaning. It has nothing to do with facts or accurate representation. You see, nobody will remember the retraction on page 12 3 days after their headlining scoop. Credibility for a journalist amounts to 1. do their stories make money for their corporate overlords, 2. do

    As a result, journalists believe it’s their god-given right to be as sensationalist as they please. And they bristle at the thought of anyone holding their feet to the fire over such measly things as facts, accuracy, integrity, or ethics.
    Because they have no ethics. And they have no principles — except to make a quick buck living out their Walter Mitty fantasy life. You know, like the Hollywood movies where a plucky kid with some spunk and a don’t-quit attitude digs to the bottom of a mystery to uncover the principal red-handed in an orgy of evil.

    Of course the reality is that they’re forced to write whatever lies or spin their editors want. And their editors want whatever benefits the corporations financing whichever media empire they happen to fall under. Or whichever fear-mongering trip they’re pushing that week to pull in more readers, so they can then write editorials about what their readership is saying about a debate over a non-issue they created for the sake of having controversy to report on.
    But every now and then, they get to daydream their Walter Mitty fantasy with a few self-serving editorials. And while in the midst of these daydreams, they sure don’t want some know-it-all elitist scientist to tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.

  26. Journalists are held to ethical standards of accuracy just as any scientist is, and our jobs depend on it. Many of the posters – including the author – seem entirely unaware of the clearly defined rules of sourcing and citation that govern news reporting.

    In the blog post above, the author states: “the phrase “give the story an angle” specifically implies that objectivity may be trumped by a context that may be more appealing to the reader; in other words, style over substance. This idea is anathema to a scientific community that has a hard enough time explaining the arcane nature of their work, without the issue is clouded by somebody else’s “angle”.”

    When journalists talk about the “angle” of a story, we’re referring to the way we highlight the salient points of a news topic. In a science story, that might be the way a new discovery can be applied to practical tasks such as managing fisheries or forests, or treating disease. Or it might be an intriguing new perspective on an established discipline.

    We definitely appeal to readers, but we try to show why the substance of the story is of interest to them, not distort the substance to attract readers. We rely on scientists to help translate the technical details of their work into interesting, meaningful stories.

    When the author states that the “scientific community that has a hard enough time explaining the arcane nature of their work,” he hits the nail on the head.

    The scientific community in general has not cultivated the ability to tell its own stories. Since much of your work depends on public funding, and has implications for public policy, it’s incumbent upon you to refine that skill.

    There are a handful of arrogant, elitist scientists who feel the public is too stupid to understand the sophistication of your work. But there are many quiet, reserved researchers who have spent their work lives in the lab, or in the field, and are simply uncomfortable with media attention.

    It would benefit your own cause, and your representation in the media, if you learn to tell your stories more eloquently. You’ll get far better stories if you become better sources, than if you demand to be unofficial editors of our work.

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