Should journalists read the papers they are reporting on?

There does seem to have been a fair bit of debate going on around this point of late and it’s time for me to pitch in with all the force and folly of ignorance. Not that I am ignorant about the general mechanics of science journalism, and certainly not with research, but freely confess that I have not read or delved into the debate to any degree and am merely aware of it’s existence and have dipped a toe into the metaphorical waters by reading the odd Tweet or skimming a blog-post.

Obviously I’d strongly support the reading of a paper in general, hell it is what you are supposed to be reporting on after all and to be honest, I find it hard to even conceive why or how there could be much of a case for the ‘no’ side. However, there are two big things that I would hope would stack up massively on the ‘yes’ side. So significant are they in fact that (in perhaps my ignorance) I can’t see them easily being toppled at all.

First off is, yes, those bloody aquatic dinosaurs again. Yes it’s obviously nonsense to anyone who knows anything about palaeontology. However, while there are great science journalists out there with no science qualifications at all, and others who are well qualified in various branches of science (physics, medicine etc.) I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that this might, conceptually, have got past even a decent science reporter. If you know little to nothing about dinosaurs, and you get a nicely plausible sounding argument apparently backed by some reasonable sounding evidence, especially off the back of a conversation with the author, you might think it’s reasonable. Any read of the ‘paper’ behind that though would dispel this pretty much instantly. It’s not a paper, and there’s no research there. Don’t read the paper, don’t spot the fake, cover nonsense as science, everyone loses. You look like a chump, non-science gets promoted as science, scientists get annoyed.

Secondly, it’s science by press release. This is also probably pretty rare, but has pretty much happened at least once when it comes to dinosaurs (as documented by Darren Naish) and there’s a steady stream of creationists and ID people happily claiming paper X or Y supports their position even if they had nothing to do with it. In essence, say in your press release what you didn’t in the paper, or couldn’t get past peer review, or just is part of a wider agenda and so use the paper as a springboard for those ideas to appear in the press. You can’t get it in the paper, but you can present it to the media (and thence the public) as if it is, and hey presto, get support and credit for your ideas. This is, of course, rather more insidious, as it can be backed by a proper paper in a proper journal. Again though, a simple reading of a paper (even if you do not have an in depth understanding of the complexities, it should be obvious whether or not a key part of the press release was even discussed in there) would soon turn this up. Again, don’t read the paper, don’t spot the exaggeration / problem, cover something not said as science, everyone loses. You look like a chump, something that shouldn’t gets promoted as science, scientists get annoyed.

As I say, these to me seem such huge possible problems that can pretty much only be solved by actually reading the paper (however briefly and however limited your expertise in the subject) that I really can’t understand why it isn’t the first thing to do. Get the press release or hear about the story, read it, read the paper. How can much else come first? So please people, do read the papers, if only to save you the embarrassment of making a much bigger mistake.

11 Responses to “Should journalists read the papers they are reporting on?”

  1. 1 Heinrich Mallison 09/04/2012 at 9:50 am

    Well, the answer is obviously: If you do not at least read the abstract and conclusions you should be fired on the spot!

  2. 2 Henrique Niza 09/04/2012 at 12:06 pm

    “Should journalists read the papers they are reporting on?”

    Absolutely! You should get a background understanding of what you’re reporting or don’t report it at all. That or make a joke of yourself. Like Heinrich said reading the abstract is the least you can do.

  3. 3 mattvr 09/04/2012 at 12:58 pm

    It’s a pity that journalists like Peter Hadfield(aka Potholer 54 on youtube) aren’t more common.
    Reads papers and understands them.
    His take on the media and science is pretty good listening:

  4. 4 Zhen 09/04/2012 at 7:15 pm

    I agree that you should at least read the conclusion and abstract. Though I do wish more sites would allow us to read both the abstract and conclusion for free. The locked papers only gives us access to the abstract. I’m guessing the media will always get full access to the entire paper, right?

    • 5 David Hone 09/04/2012 at 7:51 pm

      Well many, if not most, paper don’t have a specific ‘conclusions’ section and simply have a concluding paragraph or two at the end of the discussion, so there’s not necessarily anything to separate out. In general the media go get access to papers yes, and of course any half decent reporter should be able to get a copy from the journal or researcher (after all, they want the media attention).

  5. 6 Tim Donovan 11/04/2012 at 1:46 pm

    Of course, a lot of papers would be hard going for the average journalist. Maybe they can produce “dumbed down” versions for them. 🙂

  6. 8 Maija Karala 14/04/2012 at 9:35 am

    I do think everyone (in their right minds) agree that it would be good in principle if every journalist read every paper they wrote about. It’s just that it’s not always made exactly easy. As a freelance science journalist (who does read the papers) here’s a couple of thoughts.

    Many journalists are put to work so fast they just don’t have the time to do any extra. Often, at least in big Finnish news websites, science news are just sentences copied straight from the press release – the headline is the only thing the journalist actually writes. And I don’t think it’s because they are lazy or abysmally stupid (well, some of them may be), but because they have to produce so many of them in a days’ work it’s simply impossible to do anything else.

    The next thing is that the journalist needs to actually get the paper to read it, and they are pretty often behind paywalls. At least the smaller magazine or newspaper publishers are often not doing very well economically, and they don’t react well to such requests. The other option is that journalists pay them from their own pockets, which in the case of short news stories might be as much or more money than the journalist is getting from the article. Doesn’t work.

    Also, reading scientific papers without any expertise in the subject is a lot more difficult than someone used to them might realize. Especially if it’s not even in your native language. Of course, a trained science journalist *should* be used to reading them.

    I have a background training in evolutionary biology instead of journalism, which gives me useful skills such as actually knowing how to read papers and knowing my basic biology. For the time being, as I’m still a student, I have access to many journals, but I have no idea how I’m going to get to them when I graduate.

    • 9 David Hone 14/04/2012 at 9:03 pm

      I’d argue that someone copying sentences from a press release isn’t a journalist. That’s being a typist. And even if you have only 10 minutes to get something together, reading the damned paper is surely the one thing you do have time for.

      Getting the paper shouldn’t be an issue either. Most major media outlets are given free access to journals and even if not, it is easy to mail the author or the editor to get a copy.

      And I’m well aware that someone with a physics background say will really struggle on a palaeontology paper. But I think I’d spot that a press release that bangs on about parallel dimensions though black holes is at odds with a paper that only mentions black holes in the last line of the discussion and never mentions dimensions and think there’s a problem.

      Sure, things are not easy. But the incredibly bad jobs we keep seeing (aquatic dinosaurs, space dinosaurs pterosaurs are birds) are pretty much inexcusable for anyone who wants respect or credibilty in their work.

      • 10 Maija Karala 14/04/2012 at 10:22 pm

        I’m ready to understand a lot of problems with science journalism because of the things I said earlier – but sometimes they simply do a very bad job when they should know better. Such as the case with the space dinosaurs. That was just incredibly stupid, especially coming from an actual scientist.

        “…it is easy to mail the author or the editor to get a copy.”
        I often do this to get pictures for a non-profit magazine I’m working for. It’s easy and the answers are always helpful, but I often have to wait for the response a week or more. For someone who needs to get the article (and likely five others) ready today, it’s not an option. Of course, if there is time, there’s no excuse not to ask.

  1. 1 Pigs, errr, I mean Dinosaurs in Spaaaaace « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 13/04/2012 at 8:34 am
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