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.