Scientists vs. Journalists: A Field Guide

The journalist and the scientist are two species that inhabit the same ecosystem, but have very different behaviors. I have spent many years carefully observing both of these species in their natural habitats, and have compiled this guide for the use of anyone interested in understanding their social structures.

THE SCIENTIST

The scientist is usually found in office, field, or lab. The scientist’s social rank depends primarily on his or her scientific publications, which may or may not be of interest to the general public (an entirely different animal far beyond the scope of this guide). Scientists often deal with words with very specific meanings, probabilities, and concepts unfamiliar to the non-scientist, and after many years of absorption in these concepts may find it difficult that non-scientists do not understand these things. One of the most dangerous habits of scientists is to use normal-sounding words in peculiar and non-intuitive ways. Most scientists do not realize they do these things and think that they sound completely normal. The typical scientist is too busy doing science (and gathering resources to do science) to spend significant time or energy improving their public communication skills, however they may value it in theory.

Because of this, many scientists actively avoid the company of journalists. They or their colleagues may have experienced predatory or parasitic journalistic behavior in the past, or perceive standard journalistic behavior (such as an undue interest in squid) as rather crass. Most scientists are not familiar with journalists and may misinterpret standard journalistic practice (e.g., not allowing scientists to read unpublished copy, not being familiar with the scientist’s specific area of expertise) as inappropriate. While it is possible for some scientists to increase his/her social rank among the public by talking to journalists, these scientists are frequently cast out by the larger scientific group, and their social rank among scientists diminished. This is particularly true when the tribe perceives that the scientist has overstepped the facts (that the scientist may have fallen prey to a predatory journalist may not be considered) or perceives that the issue at hand is not scientifically interesting (even if it is interesting to the public).

Journalists wishing to win the trust of scientists must use particular caution regarding factual statements. Scientists may not understand how to present information to the public in an understandable and engaging way, but scientists deal in facts, and are extremely sensitive about inaccurate or misleading statements. Paraphrasing scientific findings can be fraught with particular peril, as a sentence that sounds completely reasonable to the journalist may actually be incorrect, thereby causing the scientist to aggressively defend their territory or to flee.

This guide recommends that journalists engage in the common practice of fact-checking, as is practiced at major publications such as the New Yorker, and to consider sending paraphrased sections of their writing to scientists to be checked for accuracy. I realize that journalists must move swiftly across the plains of publication to avoid being overcome by competitors, but accuracy is paramount to a good relationship with scientists. Remember that bad scientists (e.g., Andrew Wakefield) are overrepresented in the press, and that this makes good scientists skittish. One bad journalistic experience may make a scientist wary for the next twenty or thirty years.

THE JOURNALIST

The journalist is a cosmopolitan species, but is under intense threat in many locales due to habitat destruction. The most intact remaining journalistic habitats are a few major metropolitan areas and the Internet – other locales may host journalists who are forced to consume all topics, not just science, in order to survive. This places severe stress upon the journalist, who must produce a certain amount of copy for the tribe by strict deadlines, or risk being thrown out of the tribe altogether. Usually only journalists of very high rank are allowed to consume a diet of strictly science.

Because of this, journalists who seek the company of scientists are usually not specialists. They will not necessarily know about scientists’ area of research, even about topics that scientists consider utterly fundamental. When writing for the public journalists will not be able to use the very specific language utilized by scientists, include every caveat or probability, or avoid questions that the public is interested in, even if the scientist thinks those are stupid questions and the public should know better. Journalists tell stories that are interesting to their readers – this means they are neither scientists’ friends nor enemies.

Scientists wishing to talk to journalists are encouraged to do so, as the survival of much scientific work depends on the public funds. Scientists should practice talking about their work to the domesticated journalists present in many universities (Public Relations Officers), who can help craft understandable and accurate messages to prepare for contact with free-range journalists in the wild. Scientists should try to anticipate what the journalist might ask and think about how they might answer these questions (even if they think they are stupid). If the facts in the published story are wrong, scientists should ask for corrections – paper newspapers will be lining birdcages a day or two after publication, but stories on the Internet are forever. If a journalist produces an article with which the scientist is pleased, the scientist should consider giving that journalist a call the next time something interesting happens.

CAUTIONARY NOTE

A full description of the complex ecosystem inhabited by journalists and scientists is far beyond the scope of this short guide. Of necessity, these observations are generalizations and I caution you not to take them too literally when trying to understand a specific individual scientist or journalist. For example, high-ranking individuals of each species may behave very differently than low-ranking individuals. To make matters yet more complicated, scientist-journalist hybrids are not uncommon in the wild, particularly on the Internet.

To become more familiar with the habits of these species, I encourage you to read the recent discussion on fact-checking and copy-checking in science journalism.

When do you [journalists] fact-check article content with sources?

How do scientists view fact-checking by science writers?

Getting on the same page with science journalists, from our own para_sight

I highly recommend this excellent piece from the Biology Files which nicely explains and summarizes this whole debate.

UPDATE: David Kroll recaps the whole debate – if you have no idea what I’m talking about or why I wrote this, read his post first.

 

Miriam Goldstein (228 Posts)





17 comments on “Scientists vs. Journalists: A Field Guide
    • Check their CV. Do they have a publication record in high impact journals. How many publications do they have in the last ten years? Are the institutions they have been associated with throughout their career well known, or are they shell institutes that have been setup with a political agenda. A quick scan through a CV with some careful knowledge of how scientific fields work can root out quite a lot of the fractured pottery lurking about.

    • The crackpot is careful to craft his/her plumage and vocalizations to be nearly identical to that of a real scientist, if one is not familiar with that scientific field. Therefore the journalist must go on secondary characteristics such as university affiliation and the comments of other scientists in the same field, neither of which are reliable identifiers. Real scientists must help journalists distinguish between crackpot vocalizations and those of actual scientific debate. Unfortunately crackpots often have a courtship display irresistible to most journalists, so it may take some time and effort on the part of real scientists and high-ranking science journalists to unmask them.

  1. Not to mention the journalist will have a very strict cognitive pattern on how to interpret things and will ‘adjust’ anything the scientists says to fit into this view.

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  3. Abject fear of screwing up the facts is a powerful motive to show the scientist-source as much of the piece as possible before filing. They will inevitably add reams of opaque prose filled with details you know your editor will toss out, but these can safely be ignored and the desired imprimatur is well worth the risk (as yet unmaterialized) that they could call your editor to tell him or her what an idiot you are and that your story is a pack of lies.
    Chris

  4. This “field guide” is clever and funny. You perfectly capture the two mindsets and your “CAUTIONARY NOTE” true, too. I hope your piece is read by a great many journalists and scientists (and science journalists and journalist scientists). Keep up the good work.

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  6. Miriam has offered a wonderfully keen observation of these species. She has only hinted, however, at the intriguing similarity of the Scientist to the mythical behavior of Struthio camelus. When danger arises and the world is going to hell in a frying pan, the Scientist is prone to put his head in the sand, wary of being spotted. Alas, if only they would vocalize with more vigor as danger nears.

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  8. It should be the journalists who are mistrusting of the scientists. If a journalist makes a mistake – it’s an honest mistake. Scientists have their own agenda – this is not always a bad thing – but they have an agenda. They either are trying to promote their own belief system or that of the corporation or special interest group that has paid them off in terms of “research grants.” The situation is especially dangerous today. Because of the down-sizing in the news industry, there is less time to verify information. It is much easier in this climate for scientists to take advantage of an eager reporter willing to regurgitate their “research.”

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  10. I think you have decribed the New York Times and anti fish farm activist Alexandra Morton perfectly. Thank you and well done !!!

  11. “Scientists should practice talking about their work to the domesticated journalists present in many universities (Public Relations Officers), who can help craft understandable and accurate messages to prepare for contact with free-range journalists in the wild.”
    hehehe…A funny way to say that new practices of fact-checking could do a large amount of good to the sci-journo relationship.
    Good point and a insightful post, Miriam. I’m a journalist and work at an university (so I can be a potential ‘domesticated’ one), so I have a better opportunity to become more aware of the differences of jargons, issues and problems to communicate science by media, as I’m more in touch with many researchers in so many areas. Enhancing the fact-check process is a good, and also defying, suggestion that I will take in consideration in my routines.

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