Nine ways journalists demonstrate they don’t understand science

Ah the Guardian, that venerable bastion of Truth and Light*. Today they posted a handy reference guide for scientists trying to work with journalist, attempting to explain why science news is covered in certain ways and trying to ease the process by pointing out “Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism”. The knife, of course, cuts both ways, so science journalist may want to meditate on a few ways that journalists demonstrate they don’t understand science.

1. The standard structure of news stories works just fine for science reporting.

I really don’t understand this one. Good writers (yes, journalists, scientists are writers, where do you think publications come from?) understand that the inverted pyramid works for news stories. There are other styles, and many science bloggers experiment (because that’s what we do) with other narrative structures.

2. 300 words is perfectly adequate to cover the key points of a paper.

We write abstracts. They’re frequently less than 300 words. They hit the salient points. No problem.

Sometimes we’re amazed by how little information you fit into 300 words.

3. Your headline is trivial, tedious, or wrong.

Hyperbolic headlines are fine, as long as they’re at least marginally grounded in reality. Where you get into hot water is when you’re hyperbolic headlines don’t actually reflect anything related to the paper. Climate change is not creating monster hybrid sharks that will take over the world.

4. You changed my colorful quote before printing!

Yes, you did. And you changed it in a such a way as to mean the exact opposite of what I said. Don’t do that.

5. Why did you fabricate a “tabloid” implication of my work?

My work on bee acrobatics has absolutely nothing to do with picking up women in bars. If you think the report is so dull that you have to fabricate a random human link, why are you reporting it at all?

6. The story is wrong.

7. I’m really not too concerned if you cover my work or not.

With few exceptions, the standard currency of science is not getting press to cover our work, so unfortunately you may not be my top priority. It’s ok, I’ll try to be polite, but I might have four classes to teach and 200 exams to grade by the end of the day. You’re more than welcome to report on anything that’s been published in the literature, but don’t be offended if the lead author simply doesn’t have time to talk to you before a deadline.

On a related note, did you talk to the grad students? They’re the ones that did most of the work anyway.

8. How could you quote that fringe nutjob with no credibility as if his work was equivalent to the overwhelming consensus?

Andrew Wakefield does not deserve the same number of column inches as the peer-reviewed study you’re reporting on.

9. The story is still wrong.


Of course, the real problem in all these “how to talk to scientist/how to talk to journalist” discussions is that both parties are talking over each other. There are terrible science journalists out there and there are good ones. There are asshole scientists that don’t think journalist can find the right end of a pencil and there are scientists that value press coverage and want to work with journalist to create a compelling and accurate story. Lumping either group into “how to talk to X” is just lazy stereotyping.

*Yes, I’m being tongue and cheek, mostly. Scientists interested in working with science journalists should read this post at the Guardian. It’s good, if not a touch full of itself.

  1. One of my journalist friends told me that journalists often have no say whatsoever in what the headline reads, and sometimes don’t even get to see it before it’s published. They are sometimes as annoyed by bad headlines as the scientist whose research was misrepresented by those headlines. What a crazy system.

    • Fair point that editors should be accurate too, but it’s still important not to blame the reporter for a headline that they neither get to write nor to approve.

      I think that the editor-reporter relationship is just as misunderstood by the other side as the lead author/grad student relationship is. Aside from headlines, I’ve been in the position where the only way I could prevent an editor from totally misrepresenting what a scientist said to me was to eliminate that whole chunk of content from the article – and I felt like I was lucky that she agreed to delete it.

      Having been both an academic and a journalist, I think one thing that’s not understood is that when you read one of my academic articles, you can assume that I had control over every single word, but for my newspaper stories that is NOT always the case.

  2. I would disagree with 7, personally — I am concerned if my work gets covered. I also took issue with the Guardian piece’s assertion that the public isn’t the first priority of a scientist, and therefore we don’t get to decide what constitutes good coverage of our work. I want my work to be covered, and covered well, and by “well” I mean that I want the public to understand the work and its implications. My fellow scientists’ opinions of me and my research are less likely to be changed by poor coverage (we’ve all heard nightmare scenarios) unless it’s something that I actively pursued or encouraged. I DO care about what the public thinks about climate change, or rewilding, or the ecological consequences of extinction. I care because I pursue those questions as more than just an intellectual curiosity.

    Otherwise, I agree with you that there has been little in the way of constructive dialog among the two groups. One thing that fundamentally needs to change is the fact that fact-checking operates completely differently among the two communities. In this case, journalists get the final say because they have control over what ends up in print. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t listen to scientists’ concerns about fact-checking by hiding behind arguments like “that’s not how journalism works!”

  3. Journalists do write headlines — just other journalists, namely copy editors for newspapers, magazines and websites. They’re journalists too, and some do a better job than others at editing text and writing headlines and captions.

  4. The Guardian’s piece sounds to me like one long effort to pretend that getting it wrong is not really getting it wrong. Because that’s the annoying thing about a lot of the science journalism you see out there. Not the inverted-pyramid style, or the format, or the headlines, or whatever. The annoying thing is that a lot of the time, it’s wrong. And I think if your whole job is communicating science to the public — if that’s what you’re paid to do, full-time — you should make a better effort to get it right, rather than complaining that scientists don’t understand what journalism is all about.

  5. I was lucky enough to actually be employed with the main goal of helping scientists communicate and connect with the public, teachers, and students – specifically, to communicate their current ocean science research because textbooks take 10 years to get to the classroom and because neither teacher nor scientist have much time. I helped bridge that gap and it does take a lot of understanding of both sides to make that successful. There are groups out there that bridge the gap between scientists and journalists, but there need to be more of them (because I’ve found that it is generally a different relationship than one between educators and scientists). Compass is a good group: http://www.compassonline.org/about

    I think Miller-McCune really tries hard to get the science right.

    I think a point that is good for everyone to be reminded of is that it is VERY difficult to undo a misconception once it is planted in someone’s head. VERY difficult. This video is quite eye opening: http://www.learner.org/resources/series28.html
    I advocate saying “I don’t know” every time it is appropriate.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that this on-going ‘discussion’ between scientists and journalists could benefit by being informed by some of the education research… which I understand is something no one in the discussion really has time for…

  6. SFS, I like your style. I don’t really agree, but I like it anyway. I am a recovering scientist myself and a graduate of a prominent science journalism program. When I entered, I thought I knew how to write (papers and such). I did not. Scientists, by and large, do not know how to write. On so many levels. They just don’t, God bless ’em (yourself and Robert Sapolsky excluded) and they need to come to terms with that. That said, science journos NEED some grounding in science.

  7. Great list but I’d agree with Jacquelyn on point 7 (as a science communicator and former journalist about to start a marine bio degree). A recent job I had in the UK was specifically trying to get factually-correct and newsworthy stories on UK and US scientific papers published in the international media (bloggers included).

    Providing a journo with the right information didn’t always end in a prominent placing unless there was a tabloid angle to it – but I’d say around 70% or more stories that were published were pretty close to the mark with reporting the facts right. And in those cases it really helped some research scientists – especially if they were at colleges and universities where ‘positive public impact’ of their work increased their chances of gaining tenure.

    University media offices (and I’ve worked in one of those as well) can also do a disservice by giving the press release a tabloid headline or misconstruing quotes just to get a good run out a story.

    This is where services such as the Science Media Centre (UK original and the Australian and NZ ones, and maybe the US has an equivalent) can educate journalists on how to report research or major science news events (e.g. swine flu outbreaks) correctly.
    There may not be many science-educated reporters left at the major papers and broadcasters but the SMC and scientists themselves can help in some way by explaining the research to reporters where possible.

  8. It would be nice if every journalist had a pithy summary of what science/evidence etc is, up on their walls. Click the “Strangetruther” above for one. It would e nice if every scientist had one too.

  9. Interesting & informative article… in a past life I was a freelance writer, newspaper & magazines, as well as some work on educational & technical manuals. I usually, but not always, was able to at least suggest the headline & byline that editors seldom changed. There are some editors that feel they have to ‘finger print’ every article on certain pages or in their ‘pet’ sections… and the writers only choice is not submitting work to that publication again, if talking doesn’t work.

    As for the difference between ‘scientists’ and ‘journalists’ – in general, it’s often the ‘size of the words.’ In my experience, scientists are generally more extreme – either very concise (with scientific terms & references) or piles of footnotes, abstracts, and detailed descriptions so as they are less likely to be misunderstood. For the last 20+ years I’ve made a reasonable living walking the fence between the two – mostly in the nutrition or computers.

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing… that was interesting.