Posts Tagged ‘science journalism’

The problems with mainstream science reporting

December 9, 2008

John Hawks, commenting on Washington Post‘s outgoing Ombudsperson’s recent editorial on science reporting:

But in a much more interesting passage, she quotes the Post’s science editor, who ultimately makes the decisions about what to report and how to place it:

Nils Bruzelius, The Post’s science editor, said, “I thought the story and Page 1 play were justified because the potential impact was significant, even as I understand the criticisms. There’s an inevitable tension between the desire of reporters and editors to get good play for their stories and the need to avoid hype or overstatement, and we feel this very acutely in dealing with scientific or medical stories, because the advances, even those that prove to be part of something very big, usually come in incremental steps. I’ve long believed that science and medical stories enter this competition at some disadvantage. I certainly don’t have data on this but I suspect that most of the top editors who make the front-page decisions tend to be less drawn to these topics than the average reader because, with a few exceptions, they are a naturally self-selected group who got to where they are by dint of their interest and ability in covering such topics as politics, international relations, war and national security — not science.”

This is a revealing statement. I don’t think it’s unique to science, though — after all, most political processes are incremental, and involve even more arcane topics like parliamentary procedure, budget accounting, and obscure officials. A story about health care reform has to describe these kinds of things just the same as a story about personal genomics. If there is a difference, it is that the science topics receive vastly less coverage, so that there are few people following the incremental steps. That means that each of the infrequent stories must either contain much of the same background material, or else must be very superficial. At the other extreme is sports reporting — in which there actually are constant new results, and for which most readers will know the major teams, players, and rules of the game.

So the real problem isn’t the nature of the subject, it’s the nature of the editors — the last part of Bruzelius’ quote. They understand politics. They don’t understand science. No training in it. Little feeling for what is realistic and what is fantasy. And unlike politics — in which few reporters are afraid to editorialize — there’s little attempt to strike a consistent editorial position.

A thoughtful post!

HowTo: talk to the media (for scientists)

March 21, 2008

Sean at Cosmic Variance has a detailed post as part of the unsolicited advice series: it consists of three major parts — what the journalists expect/want, how the scientist can prepare, and which areas are the combined responsibility of the interviewers and the interviewees. Take a look!

HowTo: assess the credibility of science reporting

October 11, 2007

ScienceWoman teaches us several tricks; here is a listing of the bulleted points:

  • Where is the article published?
  • Who wrote the article?
  • Who funded the research?
  • Was the research published in the scientific literature?
  • Were there corroborative sources in the article?
  • Where was the research done and who did it?
  • How does the reported science fit in with what you know about how the world works?

ScienceWoman explain each of these points with examples. Take a look!