How the Popular Press Writes a Science Report

| 65 Comments

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

It’s amazing, clear, and sums up the industry. A must read.

65 Comments

The “unrelated story” link at the was actually remarkably informative.

In this paragraph I will applaud the writer’s efforts and wish that journalism classes provided such astute examples.

PZ Myers already commented on this in Pharyngula:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/[…]_my_head.php

Lots of good comments. Check them out.

bookmarked for future reference.

next time I get a journalist wanting to interview me about shark behavior, I’ll tell them I’m not saying a word until they read that first.

“If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public “controversy” exists.”

Perfect description of IDiots…

I just have to note that Jerry Coyne got it first on WEIT :-) http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress[…]-journalism/

GvlGeologist, FCD said:

PZ Myers already commented on this in Pharyngula:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/[…]_my_head.php

Lots of good comments. Check them out.

Apparently there are multiple motivations for this general practice:

1) The publication doesn’t want to become controversial or the target of a lawsuit.

2) The journalist has unreasonably short deadlines and no real grasp of the science. Nobody else working at the publication understands the science either.

3) Both writers and editors have been following this formula on most news stories their whole careers; it’s all they know.

Obviously we would wish to impose a new set of policies:

1) Hire someone who has deep knowledge of every scientific field, along with the ability to write about it clearly and cogently.

2) Give that person as much time or as many column inches as it takes to educate the typical viewer or reader to the point where he CAN make sense of the science.

3) Let the story mature for as long as it takes to get several rounds of responses to prior comments by all scientists involved. But don’t let the initial story go stale in the process.

4) Have each science story vetted by at least one respectable specialist in that area.

THEN we’d have the best of all possible worlds, right? Right?

Flint said:

Apparently there are multiple motivations for this general practice:

1) The publication doesn’t want to become controversial or the target of a lawsuit.

2) The journalist has unreasonably short deadlines and no real grasp of the science. Nobody else working at the publication understands the science either.

3) Both writers and editors have been following this formula on most news stories their whole careers; it’s all they know.

Obviously we would wish to impose a new set of policies:

1) Hire someone who has deep knowledge of every scientific field, along with the ability to write about it clearly and cogently.

2) Give that person as much time or as many column inches as it takes to educate the typical viewer or reader to the point where he CAN make sense of the science.

3) Let the story mature for as long as it takes to get several rounds of responses to prior comments by all scientists involved. But don’t let the initial story go stale in the process.

4) Have each science story vetted by at least one respectable specialist in that area.

THEN we’d have the best of all possible worlds, right? Right?

The above sounds more like a peer-review process. I think there is a middle ground some where.

I’d be very interested in a middle ground. The basic problem seems to be twofold: the lack of knowledge of the subject matter on the part of the journalist, and a pervasive “find two sides and portray them as balanced” philosophy on the part of the publications.

I think distinctly different cures are called for. I can see the “force the story to fit this formula now matter how inappropriate” organizational practice forcing knowledgeable reporters into other jobs, so I think that must be fixed first. But I can also understand a time-tested (but stupid for science articles) formula being followed mindlessly as “safe” when nobody in the organization understands the subject or has the background to understand anyone who does understand it.

Flint, interesting take. Tell me, do you think similar standards would be acceptable in sports or arts reporting?

Science reporting is generally much better when written by a specialised science reporter than someone randomly assigned from the newsroom roster. You don’t need to be a specialist in every field of science, you just need a working knowledge of scientific methods, the major scientific theories, the key pieces of evidence for each theory, and develop some reliable contacts to deal with those times you *don’t* know enough about the subject at hand. This is hard work, but there are many professional science journalists today who show it’s achievable.

As per Mike Kelly, you wouldn’t see a sports reporter write a story about a famous baseball pitcher and provide “balance” by quoting someone who denied the existence of curveballs.

With the exception of (3), Flint’s suggestions are simply not going to happen in a contemporary mainstream newspaper - it’s way too expensive given current editorial budgets and frankly 99% of editors don’t really care about science unless there’s some sexy health angle, and even then they don’t actually care about the science. As to (3), the Guardian itself ran an interesting experiment along those lines a while back. The initial news story would be followed up with blog coverage, feedback from the researchers and other scientists, links to contextual information and so on. Unfortunately they seem to have dropped it, but it struck me as by far the best attempt to do in depth science reporting I’ve seen in a British paper.

Science reporting is generally much better when written by a specialised science reporter than someone randomly assigned from the newsroom roster. You don’t need to be a specialist in every field of science, you just need a working knowledge of scientific methods, the major scientific theories, the key pieces of evidence for each theory, and develop some reliable contacts to deal with those times you *don’t* know enough about the subject at hand. This is hard work, but there are many professional science journalists today who show it’s achievable.

Someone like Carl Zimmer?

My suggestions were not intended as a serious prescription, but rather intended to show the impractical expense and other organizational difficulties of covering science as a news story.

I don’t think the problem is particularly intractable. Just assign someone who understands science generally and has some intelligence, hand him the Robbins piece as an example of how NOT to cover a science story, tell him to check his facts and presentation with the scientists in the story before submitting it, and publish it that way.

And I understand that the guy writing the piece has to know how much time or space he has, and needs to understand that some arbitrary and unpredictable amount of material will get chopped off the end of the story to make time/room for ads.

That was fun. Thanks for the link.

In the US, journalism is under a number of constraints that make good science reporting more difficult -

1) Journalists today are the product or journalism degrees. I have known some good people to do such programs, but there is a tendency for the degree to be chosen by those who may have resentment toward fields that are perceived as academically more challenging.

2) Paradoxically, journalism is still something of a “glamor” job - a journalist is the lowest form of celebrity, but still potentially a celebrity. Often, a degree from a fancy private college and a fair amount of unpaid intern work is needed before a job at anything resembling a major media organ can be obtained. Entry jobs may pay very little even so. Newer journalists thus tend to be from affluent backgrounds by definition. The relative requirement for personal affluence to even get in the field may complicate efforts to attract talent in a meritocratic way.

3) With a few low-traffic exceptions, there are two types of media outlets in the US. Those that generate right wing/Republican propaganda 24/7/365.25, and those that merely insist on “balance”, permitting a few non-conservative journalists, but always coddling right wing ideas with “balance” and employing token right wing columnists. And the second type are a distinct minority, and are constantly under vicious attack for “leftism” by the undiluted right wing, despite their constant efforts to conciliate and coddle (sounds kind of like the Democratic party, too, I guess).

Whether journalists “believe” right wing ideas or not (and they are of a demographic - affluent but only modestly educated whites - who are likely to be conservative), they are implicitly required by their employers to either always produce right wing propaganda, or, with a few aging exceptions, to show it exaggerated deference and always refer to any conflict between the far right and everyone else as a “controversy” or “debate”. Much as media outlets that coddle far right ideas, but not quite universally enough, are reviled for “leftism” (in fact it’s even common to hear claims that the New York Times is “Marxist” and so on), US journalists, who are overall clearly a conservative group, are reviled as “liberals”, despite evidence to the contrary http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2447.

The logical conclusion for any career-minded journalist is that there is grave danger in even trivially challenging right wing ideas.

But what should this have to do with science reporting? Isn’t science politically neutral? Unfortunately in the current milieu, hard core political science denial - human contribution to climate change denial, evolution denial, tobacco/health denial, HIV denial, and increasingly, vaccine denial - is associated with the political right and the Republican party. And that is a FACT of public record. Of my list, you can examine denialist legislation or public denialist statements by political figures, and you will find this to be true, except that vaccine denialism has only recently been adopted by the far right, and may show a more diverse demographic.

4) There is also a tendency for US media outlets to be somewhat scornful of their consumers, and to emphasize keeping things simplified.

So a US journalist is someone who may resent science or jeer at it as an occupation for “nerds” to begin with, may hold right wing science denial views to begin with, and is often implicitly required to refer to outright reality-denying positions as sources of “controversy” or “debate” if they want to stay employed at any rate.

If they do a bunch of grunt work and try to come up with a good rather than glib article, they’re more likely to be punished than rewarded for it.

It’s pretty clear that this situation isn’t going to lead to a lot of well written science articles. What amazes me is that there are any at all.

I have long been cynical/sceptical about science articles in the press (British for me)

Both last year and 10years ago scientist friends of mine had met with science journalists and of both occasions the journalists said that they altered the story to make good reading

Sadly that happens too often and many feeble-minded followers of science (especially creationists) don’t look carefully at the story or check out sources

Almost without exception, my colleagues and I in research dreaded any kind of interview with any kind of journalist. We were never surprised when the result came out wrong in the media.

Most of the time we felt as though we were being interviewed by children who didn’t have a big enough vocabulary to even be asking questions let alone be taking down our responses.

And trying to put answers into relatively colloquial language is extremely difficult to do; especially impromptu, and especially when the reporter asks a question that makes no sense. The reporter often answered his own nonsensical question with his own nonsensical answer because he didn’t understand our attempts to clarify.

Mike Elzinga said:

Most of the time we felt as though we were being interviewed by children who didn’t have a big enough vocabulary to even be asking questions let alone be taking down our responses.

There is the tale of a prominent physicist, don’t remember the name, who was asked by a journalist if he could give a simple explanation of his work that could be understood by a nonscientific reader. The physicist thought it over for a moment and replied: “No.”

mrg said:

Mike Elzinga said:

Most of the time we felt as though we were being interviewed by children who didn’t have a big enough vocabulary to even be asking questions let alone be taking down our responses.

There is the tale of a prominent physicist, don’t remember the name, who was asked by a journalist if he could give a simple explanation of his work that could be understood by a nonscientific reader. The physicist thought it over for a moment and replied: “No.”

That was P.A.M. Dirac.

If Dirac could have given a simple answer Moses would have explained it in his books:)

There is a partial description of the interview in Graham Farmelo’s book, “The Strangest Man,” on page 162.

The journalist was Joseph Coughlin, known as Roundy.

The report by Coughlin may be apocryphal, but it captures Dirac’s behavior so well that somehow it ought to be true.

Mike Elzinga said: That was P.A.M. Dirac.

No, somebody more recent. However, it fits Dirac, whose conversational vocabulary was said to consist of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know.”

Eugene Wigner, who was Dirac’s brother in law, once described Dick Feynmann as: “Like Dirac, only human.”

mrg said:

Mike Elzinga said: That was P.A.M. Dirac.

No, somebody more recent. However, it fits Dirac, whose conversational vocabulary was said to consist of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know.”

Eugene Wigner, who was Dirac’s brother in law, once described Dick Feynmann as: “Like Dirac, only human.”

I doubt that it would be Feynman. The reference may be to the similar out-of-the-blue type of genius.

But Feynman was often easy to talk with when he wasn’t ensconced in his office. I could never see Dirac on the Rogers commission investigating the Challenger disaster.

Can you imagine, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Dirac”?

Flint -

I am strongly in favor of objective journalism.

“Objective” doesn’t mean “creating false equivalence”. The objective response creationism is to point out that it is complete BS. The objective response to climate change denialism is to note that the evidence and the views of objective, qualified scientists without ties to the fuel petroleum industry are strongly in consensus. Also to point out that climate denialists often focus on fake, irrelevant “scandals”, and contradict themselves (“there is no warming”, “there is warming but there is no human contribution”, “there is a human contribution but the warming is benign”, “there is a human contribution and it isn’t benign but it’s too late to do anything now…”)

If US journalism were objective with respect to science, you would see no more pro-creationism or pro-climatology-denial articles, than pro-astrology articles. Less, in fact, because, as I have repeatedly noted, astrology doesn’t deny cosmology or astrophysics, it merely makes a bunch of unsupported ancillary claims about stars and planets.

Objective also doesn’t mean having no opinion. It means identifying your opinion as an opinion, justifying it with logic and data, and being able and willing to respond to challenging feedback.

It would be hard for “progressives”, at least if I am one, to be issuing a lot of anti-science propaganda, because refusal to be rational and/or efforts to deceive with propaganda are counter to the very ideals of the enlightenment (since expanded) that progressives are in favor of. If you’re really in favor of freedom of expression in a meaningful way, and you’re in favor of rational, skeptical thought, well, then, you’re hard pressed to be anti-science.

However, if some barrage of anti-scientific propaganda were coming from a powerful political alliance on “the left”, I would oppose it every bit as much as I oppose the current anti-science trend on the right.

Mike Elzinga said: I could never see Dirac on the Rogers commission investigating the Challenger disaster.

I think that was the point Wigner was making.

I understand Feynman’s students were not always fond of him. I recall Kip Thorne saying he was terrified of going to his classes.

mrg said:

Mike Elzinga said: That was P.A.M. Dirac.

No, somebody more recent. However, it fits Dirac, whose conversational vocabulary was said to consist of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know.”

Eugene Wigner, who was Dirac’s brother in law, once described Dick Feynmann as: “Like Dirac, only human.”

Feynman did relate a story about this on page 243 in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.” He was excited about being called for an interviewed by Time magazine, but the person who called him thought it was Pais.

Feynman told Pais, and Pais said, “Aw, publicity is a whore!”

Here are two examples of journalistic writing that misses the mark in terms of being objective:

http://circleh.wordpress.com/2010/0[…]in-the-news/

http://circleh.wordpress.com/2010/0[…]ony-balance/

harold said:

Flint -

I am strongly in favor of objective journalism.

“Objective” doesn’t mean “creating false equivalence”. The objective response creationism is to point out that it is complete BS. The objective response to climate change denialism is to note that the evidence and the views of objective, qualified scientists without ties to the fuel petroleum industry are strongly in consensus. Also to point out that climate denialists often focus on fake, irrelevant “scandals”, and contradict themselves (“there is no warming”, “there is warming but there is no human contribution”, “there is a human contribution but the warming is benign”, “there is a human contribution and it isn’t benign but it’s too late to do anything now…”)

If US journalism were objective with respect to science, you would see no more pro-creationism or pro-climatology-denial articles, than pro-astrology articles. Less, in fact, because, as I have repeatedly noted, astrology doesn’t deny cosmology or astrophysics, it merely makes a bunch of unsupported ancillary claims about stars and planets.

Objective also doesn’t mean having no opinion. It means identifying your opinion as an opinion, justifying it with logic and data, and being able and willing to respond to challenging feedback.

It would be hard for “progressives”, at least if I am one, to be issuing a lot of anti-science propaganda, because refusal to be rational and/or efforts to deceive with propaganda are counter to the very ideals of the enlightenment (since expanded) that progressives are in favor of. If you’re really in favor of freedom of expression in a meaningful way, and you’re in favor of rational, skeptical thought, well, then, you’re hard pressed to be anti-science.

However, if some barrage of anti-scientific propaganda were coming from a powerful political alliance on “the left”, I would oppose it every bit as much as I oppose the current anti-science trend on the right.

Flint said:

Why must it? If the science is providing us a best available picture of the physical world (past, current, and near future), its doing its job.

I agree. But that picture implies some interpretation. Read any article in Science News, and you’ll see what I mean. The keyword is “news”. We’re talking here about writing news articles, not journal articles.

Okay in that case we have little issue. If you’re reading an article in the Economist or newspaper and it has Hawking giving his opinion on the stability of the dollar, caveat emptor.

When you said “a well-written science article” I interpreted that to mean journal article, because that’s what ‘science article’ is to me.

I would still probably disagree with you about what a mainstream journalist writing about science “must” do (your word), but that’s a small quibble so I’ll bow out of the discussion now.

Perhaps I can answer a few questions without writing a novel, although it will be a longer comment than I like to make. Recall that climate is the long term average and other statistical features of weather. Other features include things like what constitutes a 500 year rain, flood, drought or windstorm. With the energy we are adding to the climate system, it is easy for events toward the end of the probability distribution, like a 500 year rain, to become much more common. There have been a great many of these improbable events this year, far too many to have happened by chance a few decades ago. Does this result from natural variability of weather, or from the world being warmer? Both. The warmer world is now a factor in the world’s weather, and natural weather variability of weather has greater variance than before.

La Niña has replaced El Niño in this semi-regular oscillation and the tropical Pacific has been cooling for a couple months at least. But ENSO now oscillates against a warmer background. The North Atlantic is warmer than it used to be. North Carolina has just had its second 500 year rain in 11 years. Hurricane Igor shocked Newfoundland. Hurricanes are not supposed to stay that strong that far north, and Igor also had far greater breadth than other hurricanes so far into the North Atlantic. These and other east coast extreme weather events are covered at Capitol Climate.

Pakistan had a terrible flood this year, not just a 500 year flood but one that shouldn’t have happened at all.

In more than 60 hours of non-stop torrential rainfall, the floods washed all that away. The north-west normally receives 500mm (20in) of rain in the month of July; over one five-day period 5,000mm fell.

At the same time there was bad flooding in central Africa, which got much less press. Australia, just recently out of a very serious drought, has now flipped to record September rains even while parts of the country are still too dry.

What will happen where Flint lives? It may get drier (google scholar Hadley cells climate) but with serious floods every so often. Over coming decades, expect more of earth’s land area to become arid. Farther from the equator, rain storms may become a major problem. If you seriously want to relocate, consider Brazil. The language and music are beautiful. Just be wary of flood plains. Wherever you go though,be aware that worldwide famine caused by climate disruption is possible any time after 2050.

Taking action to alleviate global warming is the best thing we can do for out economy. For now, fossil fuel suppliers need to keep prices down because of the “threat” of other energy sources, but in view of emerging economies this can’t last. We need to take action as a nation, indeed as a species, and we should have started decades ago. Long ago and seemingly in a galaxy far away, the President of the United States placed solar panels on the roof of the White House to generate electricity. The panels were like a shinning star to guide us on the right path. Alas, the next president preferred oil and took the solar panels down. Of late, the Right has tried to make climate change a joke in the American mind. In China, they prefer to make it into jobs. We could also have a tremendous jobs program, building bike paths, weatherizing buildings, installing solar panels and doing other valuable work, but it won’t pass Congress. What can be done with our current Congress? Here is one example.

Considering the hidden costs of fossil fuels, the immediate benefits of clean renewable energy and less foreign dependence, and the coming costs of climate change, (USA has coasts on three sides) taking action as a society to change our carbon burning ways is surely good for the economy.

Flint said:

Pete,

I don’t understand your comment. You say climatology is a solid science, with principles well understood, irrespective of politics. But I asked you direct, very important questions. I DO wish to know what changes I might expect, and when, and what steps I can take today to do something about them. If climatology can answer these questions, great. I sincerely wish to have them answered. Should I relocate? When? To where? What do I face that would inconvenience me where I am, that I could avoid elsewhere? What might these things be, and when do I need to take action?

Can you tell me? Use all the solid, mature science you need.

And if you can NOT tell me, be large enough to admit it.

Forget all those questions. Here’s the bottom line: are you a trained climatologist? If not, what competence do you have to judge the value of anyone’s answer to your questions? If none, then why ask the questions? (Note: I’m only repeating Plato’s arguments from 2,500 years ago …)

Basically I submit that you have no choice but either to accept the answers of the majority of experts who do have that expertise, or else cherry-pick the minority opinions of those who agree with the beliefs you pulled out of the air based on your political or economic views.

A little OT, but I thought you guys might enjoy this. It’s the same idea as the original post, only it applies to the regular news…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtGS[…]yer_embedded

Yes I’m an HTML idiot and don’t know how to use tags…

Cheers

Flint said: I agree. But that picture implies some interpretation. Read any article in Science News, and you’ll see what I mean. The keyword is “news”. We’re talking here about writing news articles, not journal articles.

When you said “science article” I thought you meant journal article.

I still think you’re wrong - reporters don’t “have” to report the economic consequences of a scientific discovery any more than they “have” to report the economic consequences of tomorrow’s weather - but I don’t really want to quibble about what makes for good journalism.

Writing for the Physical Review isn’t at all the same as writing for the Guardian or the Washington Post.

Correct. One is what scientists do, the other is what journalists do. It seems your big beef is with what journalists do, not what scientists do.

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This page contains a single entry by Reed A. Cartwright published on September 29, 2010 2:20 PM.

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