Posts Tagged 'science journalism'

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.

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.


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