The road well trodden

Scientists should do this. Journalists should do that. And eventually we will live in a world where the media reporting of science achieves perfection. At least that is the hypothesis.

The hypothesis was put to the test at the Royal Institution last night in a discussion organised by Alok Jha and chaired by Alice Bell. The speakers included Ananyo Bhattacharya and Chris Chambers, who had fired their opening salvoes on the Guardian’s web-site some weeks ago. Bhattacharya defended the rights of journalists, while Chambers initially countered that science and scientists are different and so should be accorded privileges in their dealings with reporters.

RI Science Media Debate

Chris Chambers wipes away a tear as Alok Jha emotes about science journalism

Before the two parties met last night, there had been some expansion and cooling of these divergent views, which took away much — though not all — of the heat of the debate. Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and Ed Yong, freelancer and blogger, injected some fresh thoughts and questions before the discussion was turned over to the audience. The whole proceedings were recorded on video and will, I hope, soon be available on the RI web-site.

I don’t wish to dwell too long on this topic. The interactions of scientists and journalists have been played and replayed too many times already. But I wanted to pick up on a couple of points.

First, science journalism in the UK has many strengths. It is by no means perfect but the very fact that scientists and journalists were prepared — again — to get together to discuss how they could help each other is testament to a certain rudeness of health.

So the gathering was healthy, but there were still a couple of emissions that disturbed my nose. The first came from Chris Chambers who proposed a ‘kite mark’, a quality stamp, for science reporting. I don’t see how such a vetting system is workable. The idea is fleshed out in more detail in Chambers’ submission (PDF) to the Leveson Inquiry. Good quality stories about a piece of research, goes the proposal, would derive from direct communication from the scientists involved, would be fact-checked by those scientists before publication, would provide a link to the original paper and — within a short period following publication — would allow the scientists to comment and respond.

There are some good elements here, in particular the need to link to the original paper (not a new idea), but overall this proposal seemed to have flown straight from cloud-cuckoo land. I agreed with Fiona Fox, who thought that journalists would look upon a kite-mark with all the relish they would have for a ‘cup of cold sick’.

During the ensuing discussion, Nicola Davis, a writer and researcher for the Times’ Eureka magazine, said that any journalist wanting to write up a science story should always read the original paper. There are some situations where this makes sense — a specialist reporter writing an in-depth article, for example — but the proposal seemed disconnected with the realities of journalists facing the pressure to file multiple stories per day. The notion may be workable for more accessible areas of science, evolutionary biology and drug trials perhaps (though see the work of Goldacre, B. on the latter topic), but discounts the conceptual difficulties of many areas of physics, chemistry and biology. Here I would rather see scientists stepping up to take greater charge of the content of press releases — and being ready to talk to journalists about their work.

There are no hard and fast rules governing interactions between scientists and journalists and no need for them. Contact is good; it will breed understanding on both sides and that in itself will enhance the accuracy of science reporting.

At the same time, the relationship should not get too cosy. The primary responsibility of good science reporters is not to science or scientists, but to their readers. Journalists need to challenge the science that they are reporting and, weirdly perhaps, I would go so far as to say that scientists need to help them do that.

And then we all went to the pub.


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13 Responses to The road well trodden

  1. Adam Smith says:

    The proposal of journalists reading the original paper is indeed divorced from reality. It is not practical in most circumstances. Moreover, it’s a waste of time. Only individuals with a background in the same field are likely to glean the level of understanding the proponents of this idea want to see.

    I can write a strong story by digesting the abstract (usually possible) and then speaking directly to the researcher – much better than wading through the data. The key word in that sentence is ‘story’. That’s what I’m looking for. Numbers don’t make stories; humans do. (Sorry to the statisticians.)

    • Grant says:

      A small caveat I would add to that is that abstracts sometimes (frequently) don’t give much context, whereas the Introduction and Discussion sections do. I have some sympathies with those writing shorter pieces with less depth wanting to skip the Methods and Results sections – as you say they will generally be fairly complex.

    • Stephen says:

      Clearly there are mixed views on this and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. James Randerson of the Guardian tweeted thusly:

      I think that mostly, where possible journos should read the paper. Partly to verify. Also because u often get a better story

  2. rpg says:

    Bottom line is that journalists won’t understand the science, so reading the paper is a waste of time—for a couple of reasons. The journalist needs to ask the scientist, and ask other scientists, to explain in their own words (i.e. understandable English) what it’s all about.

    The journalist is representing the public—and interpreting the science to that public. We must never lose sight of that.

    (This is different from ‘science writing’, where your audience is probably quite well versed in the subject at hand, and additionally small in number…)

  3. Many (but not all, admittedly) scientists spend considerable time teaching – which in some cases involves presenting your research, or that of others, to an audience significantly less specialized than oneself. I’m thinking of lecturing to college students, say, or even high school students. Maybe this counts as “public outreach” as opposed to “academic lecturing”, but in many ways it’s the same idea as explaining your research to a journalist – making it easier to understand for an audience without a PhD and umpteen years of postdoctoral and post-postdoctoral experience. I don’t really see much difference – the former is teaching a group, the latter is teaching an individual. It ought to be (a) an expectation, and (b) something we actually enjoy doing, I think.

    • Stephen says:

      I agree that many do such ‘outreach’ work but I’d bet it’s still a small minority of scientists who are involved. Those with a strong interest outreach are likely to have made a big effort to find ways of making their science accessible. All others likely underestimate the difficulty of the task.

  4. Mike Taylor says:

    Good quality stories about a piece of research, goes the proposal, would derive from direct communication from the scientists involved, would be fact-checked by those scientists before publication, would provide a link to the original paper and — within a short period following publication — would allow the scientists to comment and respond. [...] I agreed with Fiona Fox, who thought that journalists would look upon a kite-mark with all the relish they would have for a ‘cup of cold sick’.

    I don’t understand. Which part of that proposal would journalists object to?

    • rpg says:

      Yeah. We can always trust all scientists to be objective about their own work.

    • Stephen says:

      I think, as Richard implies, it would encourage too much dependency on scientists. For sure, journalists should examine their work and interview the scientists to get the story straight. But, in the best cases, their journalistic instincts would also lead them to question the research, to seek out other opinions. It’s not simply about having journalists translate a piece of scientific research for the public.

      • rpg says:

        Indeed. It is hubristic for a scientist to assume a journalist would have no call to speak to somebody else.

        Fact-checking is incredibly important, but it should not be done by the scientist(s) whose work is being reported. Places such as The Scientist have dedicated fact-checkers who read copy and compare it with published literature (including the paper if there is one). That’s not always going to work with high-level, high-volume journalism, but the journalist can do a lot of the work by talking to other ‘experts in the field’. And if those experts have vested interests, then they’ll balance the reportee’s agenda, won’t they?

        • Mike Taylor says:

          What part of list of “kite-mark” principles suggests that the journalist shouldn’t speak to anyone else but the scientists whose work is being reported? I don’t see that anyway.

          I think some people are conflating fact-checking with editorial. No-one is better positioned that the original author to check the facts in a piece; but there is no suggestion that that author should also be allowed to rewrite opinion or prohibit contradictory opinions.

          To take an example: a journalist writing about my then-new dinosaur Brontomerus would want to talk to other palaeontologists about whether or not I an my co-authors were right to identify the specimens as representing a new genus and species; but when reporting facts such as where and when the fossils were found, they would be silly to talk to anyone other than the authors.

          • rpg says:

            Why should science be singled out for ‘kite-marking’? Why not politics or economics? Why not sport?

            And I still disagree about fact-checking. When and where something was discovered has to be checked with someone else–for matters of priority, if nothing else.

  5. rpg says:

    Strikes me that journalists are better at ‘nullius in verba’ than scientists, to be frank.