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.

January 17, 2012 • 11:15 am