Posts Tagged 'reporting'

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.

More for the journos

Having tried to help out with my last post in this area (hopefully without being too patronising) I thought I’d be a bit less helpful and a little more confrontational / exasperated in this one with some of the more obvious and constantly repeated errors that seem to crop up in dinosaur-related reporting. Rather like my good old ‘top 10’ for pterosaurs but a bit more generalised and directed more at reporting than general ignorance / inaccuracy.

As noted before on here, science progresses and while facts do not change, our interpretation of them does. Things go out of date, new ideas are added and new fossils are found or new hypotheses applied to old ideas. Still, some things are very basic or so outdated that it’s hard to imagine while they persist, yet they do. Ignorance can always be excused – not everyone knows everything and journalists are often asked to write things they know little about. Not doing basic research if however quite a sin, especially in these days of instant information access and when something like Wikipedia (for all it’s faults) can present you with at least a good starting point for further reading.

Bearing that in mind, here are a few of my biggest (and generally most unbelievable) bugbears in writing about palaeontology. Continue reading ‘More for the journos’

The effect of the media

Clearly I discuss the media on here a lot, and in general they don’t come out of it too well when it comes to science reporting. But the important thing is that it really does matter – the media has a marked and measurable effect on people’s perceptions of reality. Here (in PLoS 1, so free to read) a new study shows that even medical students can be lured into thinking some diseases are worse than others simply based on how much attention they get in the press:

“Undergraduate psychology and medical students were asked to rate the severity, future prevalence and disease status of both frequently reported diseases (e.g. avian flu) and infrequently reported diseases (e.g. yellow fever). Participants considered diseases that occur frequently in the media to be more serious, and have higher disease status than those that infrequently occur in the media, even when the low media frequency conditions were considered objectively ‘worse’ by a separate group of participants.”

The media IS important and it DOES have a real effect on how people react to science and so it IS critical that we engage with the media to help them do a better job and even make them do a better job.


The Role of Medical Language in Changing Public Perceptions of Illness
Meredith E. Young, Geoffrey R. Norman, and Karin R. Humphreys

PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(12): e3875.

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