Traps for journalists to avoid

Quite some time ago I put together a post advising journalists on how to not screw up their coverage of palaeontology. It seemed to have mixed results but at least it’s out there. Recently a friend of mine asked me if I had any more general advice (knowing who to write clade names is not really much use in a story on physics) and I decided to have a crack at it. Some of what I had put first time around is still relevant, but here I though I would focus on how bad stories make it into the news – or rather stories that should never have been reported.

Any researcher will tell you that there are regular stories on the media that are built on nothing but hyperbole and BS. Now this is not necessarily the journalists fault – he’s chasing a good story and here is one on a plate. It sounds good, has enthusiastic backing from the researcher who is giving up their time to promote it, let’s run with it. So what’s wrong with it? Here are a few tell-tale warning signs.

 

Is there actually a proper paper? If this story is coming from a conference abstract, grant proposal, self-published manuscript, website etc. then simply leave it be. If this thing cannot get past peer review, or has not tried, it’s not even passed the most basic test of the scientific process. You’re simply asking to be taken in by a nutty idea that has simply slipped, unreviewed, into a conference (and quite possibly sneakily – the content to a talk can be quite different to the title). If there is at least a proper paper in a proper journal that’s a good start. (Note: even some ‘proper’ journals publish non-reviewed papers occasionally. It’s dropping away but this does happen).

 

Does the content of the paper match what you are being told? Again, a dishonest researcher can easily publish a paper on say ankylosaurs and talk about their taxonomy, but then push a press release about his amazing new hypothesis on how they could run at 50 mph backwards. So, read the press release and read the paper. Do the two match or are you being pushed something that’s not really supported or even mentioned in the supposed ‘groundbreaking’ research paper.

 

Is this really odd? For sure some amazing papers appear on occasion and can we well supported and taken to heart as it were. But if something looks very odd, and if it’s only appearing in a very short manuscript with little text and few figures or references then I’d be smelling a rat. This seems to good to be true, something this cool and new yet it can all be explained away in just a few hundred words and a drawing? Hmmmm. If so, call / email a few people. Ask around. And try to avoid regular collaborators of the person in question – their friends might well support them. But if you keep hearing “he said that? really?” then be careful. This might have got through peer-review but no-one seriously buys it.

 

Stick to these and you should be able to avoid a mountain of stupid and disingenuousness. Sure, some other guys are going to report on these stories and very occasionally you might miss out. But ultimately if your job is to inform the public you are doing them a far great disservice by putting out confident and supporting articles on utter nonsense that you are in occasionally missing something. If a major % of what you tell people is wrong (and let’s face it, these big, exciting stories are really appealing because they are so shocking or seemingly impossible) then you might as well not bother. So stick to the well-reviewed papers and make sure they match what you’re being sold. It’ll benefit you, the reader and the researcher.

14 Responses to “Traps for journalists to avoid”


  1. 1 Roger (@jazzpangolin) 20/10/2011 at 1:14 pm

    Hopefully some journos read this!

    • 2 David Hone 20/10/2011 at 4:01 pm

      Well and take it to heed. As I noted ages ago, my last piece like this was indeed picked up by one journo who then cross posted it to a journalists forum and telling people to read it, which was nice. About a month later I was bemoaning a terrible write-up of something only to realise it was the same guy making the very mistakes I had warned about and he had been keen to promote.

  2. 4 Zhen 20/10/2011 at 3:40 pm

    About your second point. Are there really such shameless misconduct that they would hype up their paper? I would never have thought people would do this in the scientific community.

  3. 6 Victoria 20/10/2011 at 4:07 pm

    Well, I know what my next SVP presentation is going to be about.

  4. 10 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. 20/10/2011 at 6:52 pm

    I actually have my Science & Global Change students compare a media report on a technical paper with the paper itself, to see if the above ideas were followed: http://www.geol.umd.edu/sgc/docs/media11.pdf

  5. 12 robertsloan2 21/10/2011 at 1:49 am

    Thank you. I’ve always loved paleontology and I enjoy blogging. If I ever start blogging on one of my favorite topics, your articles are an education in themselves.

    If I start off on the right foot with your guidelines, any blog entry I write up on one of my favorite pastimes will only help disseminate the latest real news. To be honest, I had no idea where journalists were getting some of this stuff.

    I’ve read some articles with the flaws you talk about, been amused but scratched my head about it. Especially the ones that dramatize the obvious. Things I’ve been familiar with from the 1980s being presented as brand-new shocking information.

    However, there are so many real new discoveries that even if they’re minor, they’re pleasant and entertaining. Another new dinosaur from Liaoning is still another new dinosaur. You said something about new ones discovered on average every week – and that’s with actual papers on them. Either someone seriously examined some old specimen collected fifty years before in a museum basement and never unpacked, or a good fossil bed somewhere in the world yields a new species.

    Either way that’s a good story with the benefit of being a good one. Something real about it made the new dinosaur different from all its named predecessors, even its closest relations. That had to be in the paper for the nomen to be accepted, so there’s a story.

    Now what I need is a good heavy glossary to heave open while I read the actual journals in the library. I would guess serious reporters have gotten so used to it that they don’t have a problem recognizing the scientific terms. The more I read, the easier it is to follow at the source.

    • 13 David Hone 21/10/2011 at 9:44 am

      That’s the only way to do it, keep reading and learning. For these kinds of things wikipedia is actually quite good – their one-liner definitions of terms tend to be very accurate and well written for those with no specialist backgrounds. A good science dictionary and a good background mainstream book (I can never stop reccomending Bill Bryson’s ‘Short History of Nearly Everything’) will be of great help too.

      Though I should add that the majority of mistakes in reports are based on jsut, well errors, this is more specific to the kind of stuff that simply shouldn’t have been reported on in the first place.


  1. 1 Media fail – a bit more on aquatic dinosaurs « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 06/04/2012 at 10:46 am

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