Fixing Truthiness In Science Journalism

On Wednesday former Scientific American editor John Rennie wrote a column in The Guardian discussing the state of science journalism and concludes with an idea on how to better its practices—how to prevent the competition of being scooped from skewing the merits of the actual scientific research being reported.  For starters, it’s worth acknowledging the strangeness of an editorial discussing how “we, the writers, can stop misinforming you, the readers.”  But even still, it’s quite important.  For the first seven paragraphs, I found myself on the edge of my e-seat:

This guy knows his stuff! ‘…online reporting could offer a fresh start—the opportunity to correct major defects in the existing coverage of research…’  True! ‘…news [is] built around discrete events…they cannot unhappen…’ Exactly! ‘Science progresses more gradually…there is rarely a distinct moment when a finding or theory comes to be accepted as canon by a consensus of scientists…”  Preach it! ‘…Yet journalism typically treats the publication of a paper in a journal as a newsworthy, validating event…’ The heart of the problem! Selling headlines is destroying science journalism’s integrity!  ‘…Surely there must be a better way…’  Seven paragraphs of solid build up…give it to me!  ‘…So consider this (admittedly unrealistic) thought experiment: What would happen if all the editors and reporters of the extended science press, including the legions of science bloggers, self-imposed a moratorium that forbade writing about new scientific findings until six months after their journal publication?’……wait, sorry…what?

That’s it?  Being a respected emissary in the field, with a huge platform, why distill the state of affairs and problem so eloquently, and then suggest an impossible solution?  This would be like Bob Woodward summing up the state of modern politics and then proposing the “admittedly unrealistic” solution of a moratorium on money.  In theory, Rennie’s idea makes perfect sense:

“Because ‘newness’ would no longer be a primary factor driving the selection of science news, assigning editors might give more weight to overview stories about trends in research, or the accretion of ideas within fields, or more deeply analytical pieces.”

But upon two seconds of reflection, we realize that when a Publisher “accidently” turns that six month moratorium into a five month and 29 day moratorium, we’d very quickly be back where we started.  That’s not the point—he offered the idea as a thinking pill, not a plan of action—but it’s a shame he wasted the bullhorn.  Science journalism needs real proposals on shifting thought and ethics in the Information Age shouted by luminaries in the field.

So…as much as I wanted to discuss Rennie’s ideas, all you get is mine.  None of these solve the problem, but they’d help.

A small change for Journalists.

One of the biggest issues is framing the intro.  It must be engaging and newsy; it must “grab”.  To sell papers and pageviews, the public needs to feel like they’re getting a bundle of information the second their eyes lock onto words.

Try these two intros:

“Stepping on sidewalk cracks leads to fractures in your mother’s spine, a team of researchers in Arizona suggests.”

“A team of researchers in Arizona suggests that stepping on sidewalk cracks leads to fractures in your mother’s spine.”

The shift is subtle.  But the first is the way most articles are framed; it is designed to set you up with take-away knowledge, something to relay at a cocktail party.  The notion that a team of researchers is positing the idea or has suggestive data is an afterthought.  In the second, however, we’re aware that we’re hearing a suggestion; we know to have our skeptical radar up—it’s not canon yet.

So make it an understood violation of journalistic ethics to put the (real) subject of the sentence, or even the paragraph, at the end when summarizing a research paper, I say.  A small shift with subtle results—no doubt—but the change reinforces the idea that research is mostly a collection of suggestions—not facts.  We are seeing something through someone else’s eyes; it’s not yet truth.

A medium change for Scientists:

If a scientist gives a quote/interview on their work, they are responsible for reviewing the publication using that quote and deeming the whole piece reflective of their actual findings—before its release.  This doesn’t happen enough or effectively enough.  Researchers ensure their names aren’t on shoddy scientific papers; they should do the same for shoddy journalism.

This is, of course, counter to scientists’ central motivator: getting their research out to the world.  But not to review the public’s interpretation of their work, or to do so poorly, should be considered a violation of research ethics.  Granted, they can’t control publications that summarize their work and don’t ask for quotes, nor can they control if someone lifts a quote from an approved publication—those are examples of poor or unethical journalism.  But if they do an interview, they should share the burden of educating the public on their findings and be responsible for the greater context in which their words are perceived.

A big change for Us.

Rennie’s underlying point cannot be overstated: “Science progresses more gradually…there is rarely a distinct moment when a finding or theory comes to be accepted as canon by a consensus of scientists…”

We need to impose his Interpretation Moratorium on ourselves.  The problem is that we suffer from the same competition as reporters: at the watercooler or at cocktail parties, we hate being scooped.  We want to be the first person to inform everyone else of something cool.  But before trying to beat the next guy to the punch, we have to remember that we’re usually talking about point M, from A to Z—a point on a line.  Occasionally, Jonas Salk or Alexander Fleming comes along and puts an iron stake in the ground, but for the most part, the fields of science are ocean liners and each paper is a turn of the propeller.  The key when reading about someone’s findings is to understand what they still don’t know.

Sure, it’s poor reporting on the journalist’s part to neglect the greater arc.  But—and this comes back to the famous research on the chicken and the egg—at the same time, it is poor reading not to wonder.

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Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling

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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote the book The St George’s Angling Club, available at

www.calebgarling.com

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4 Responses to Fixing Truthiness In Science Journalism

  1. Nicole Edmison says:

    Caleb Garling hits the nail on the head once again! His uncanny ability to distill complex issues – spanning many disciplines – down to manageable paragraphs will earn him a place amongst the great journalists of our time. But that’s just my opinion.

  2. John Rennie says:

    Wonderful post, Caleb, and thank you for picking up on my theme. I don’t agree 100% with your specific suggestions here, but that’s vastly less important than the fact that you’re thinking and presenting ideas that all of us involved in science communication ought to at least think about. More people should follow your great example.

    On your small point for journalists, I agree with the spirit of the suggestion though not its letter. To me, forcing all science writing to cleave to the formula in your second phrasing would be too doctrinaire and probably would undercut how appealing many stories could be. But you’re right: science news writers need to be very aware that in such stories, they are reporting on a claim about scientific reality, not the reality itself. The writers should find ways to drive that point home repeatedly throughout a story.

    Your medium change for scientists is actually more than a little problematic for journalists because it’s usually considered a breach of journalistic ethics to show whole stories to the people they’re about (including sources contacted for comment). Journalists shouldn’t cede control of what they’re writing to outsiders, and particularly not to the people on whom they’re reporting. Naturally, scientists are free not to talk to journalists under those conditions, but that’s not an outcome that serves anyone very well.

    Nevertheless, it is appropriate for scientists to at least explore with the reporters interviewing them whether they can know the context in which they are being quoted. Many good journalists are happy to try to fact check their stories with scientist sources who seem open to helping them, as long as its clear that the scientists don’t get final veto over what goes into print. It’s not a perfect solution, but I think it leaves room for both the journalists and the scientists to be conscientious and responsible.

  3. Antoine Bonnin says:

    Great article Caleb. It reminded me of a piece from The Atlantic showing how medical researchers conclusion in their studies is sometimes misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/10/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/8269/

  4. Brennan Sherry says:

    Great stuff Caleb. I would agree with what Mr. Rennie says about your suggestions though. I think the point your bring up with the “a big change for us” is really important, because at the end of the day that’s what’s driving this sort of journalism.

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