Science Reporting Gone Wrong

In the last few weeks, I've been doing some research on the science reporting process for a new article I'm writing, investigating the process from bench science journal publication, to press release, to traditional media stories on science, to blogs about science news, to science-related social media comments.

Although I can't reveal too much (got to keep my readers in anticipation! "Smile"), I've encountered some general tips and faux-pas of the science reporting process that I can't help but share. Some of these you may have seen me tweet lately...

It appears that distorted science abounds from all corners of the science reporting process, not just the misinformed newspaper article, the hurried press release or the blog post that misquoted the original researcher. And, sorry scientists, the media can’t be blamed for the pressure to publish quick-turnover short reports in high impact journal articles that tout interesting yet preliminary results yet to be replicated. Journalists can’t be blamed for the dissemination of science news to the public by sources with competing financial interests in the results (although they can certainly reveal these to the public through investigative journalism!)

No, the science reporting process is a complicated one. The process requires honest researchers, informed PR writers, investigative journalists and savvy, critical bloggers to ensure that public audiences receive accurate big-picture representations of scientific research and discovery.

So, without further ado, how can those of us personally involved in the science reporting process keep our audiences reading while translating (and even critiquing) original scientific research in such a way as to not distort, hype, trivialize, dramatize, or otherwise misrepresent the science?

When Short Doesn’t Work

Some stories about scientific discoveries are not easy to tell… they don’t fit the single page blog post or the short press release. Some stories are messy and complicated, writes Fiona Fox; some scientific experiments and the peer-reviewed articles and media stories that flow from them are inherently full of caveats, contexts, conflicting results and need for future research. As Peter Aldhous, New Scientist's San Francisco bureau chief, points out, some science stories simply shouldn’t be told in short format.

When it comes to stories about new drugs and medical therapies, for example, audiences ought to be getting quantitative information about benefits, potential harms, treatment costs and whether the information is coming from a source with a financial tie to the manufacturer (see Aldhous’ blog post on the topic). While good PR writers and journalists keep such public information needs in mind when it comes to scientific reporting, many others don’t. New projects such as are realizing the need for vetted scientific information, bringing expert reviewers to the table to rate medical news stories against criteria designed to promote better reporting of science and health news.

Perhaps more individual science reporters, journalists and bloggers ought to keep in mind that the format should fit the content and the content should reflect both an honest representation of the original science and the public good. With publics often looking online for scientific (and especially health) information on which they base real-life decisions and behaviors, that story you are writing about a novel pharmaceutical discovery should perhaps do more than ‘wow’ your reader.

The Interview

A word to the wise science journalist: Get out there and interview an expert NOT directly involved with the scientific study at hand.

A 2011 research study found that press releases and media stories that cited experts not directly involved in the research were more apt to be deemed accurate representations of the original science.

Think about the possible competing interests of the expert you interview, and try to bring several expert voices to the reporting of a novel scientific finding. This doesn’t mean balancing an expert in the field with a critic in another field or outside science itself. That indeed would be a terrible injustice to the rigorous process of scientific discovery and the expert you are interviewing. It simply means going a bit deeper in judging and reviewing scientific findings in light of previous and concurrent studies conducted by other experts in the field.

Don’t Overestimate

Whether you are a PR officer, a journalist or a blogger, don’t turn preliminary research data into tried and true scientific evidence. If a scientist tells you about preliminary findings, represent them as such – results needing replication and future research for validation. Even published results are NOT final… science is not a linear process, where results only build upon and corroborate each other in an ever upward march toward Scientific Truth. Science is often one step forward, ten steps back, as scientific findings are qualified, revised, or even rejected by subsequent studies.

Scientists slowly work toward elucidating the tremendously complex systems that are the climate, the human brain, the inner workings of the cell and the processes of cancer. Their work is often full of revisions, informed assumption-making and simplified models of complex phenomena. Indeed, if you ever have thousands of scientists all agreeing on a scientific result or process (yes, I'm talking about global warming), you’ve got a rare case on your hands that should make you sit up and listen. Otherwise, keep preliminary results preliminary.

Principles of Science Journalism

Forget hype, be vigilant of your sources, recognize complexity, and understand the scientific process you are writing about. Clearly define and communicate areas of doubt and uncertainty and consider public interest the primary criterion when choosing which stories to report. These are just a few of the Principles of the Association of Health Care Journalists, many of which I find all journalists and bloggers would do well to stand by whenever possible (myself included).

More to Come…

These ‘tips’ of good science reporting touch only the tip of the iceberg that is science PR, science journalism, science blogging and beyond. From the level of rigorous research itself down to the social media mention of a new discovery, writers and readers alike can help preserve science in all its statistical power and context-dependent accuracy, complexity, and human-driven idiosyncrasies. Science backed by empirical evidence and replication is far more interesting and useful in the end than ‘shocking’ preliminary false positive results.