In which I *don’t* blame journalists

Given the existence of this blog, you might have guessed that I’m interested in communicating science to a wider audience. Recently (well, in November) I went to one of Sense About Science‘s media workshops to learn more about science communication – specifically, about the representation of science in the media and issues surrounding same. When I’d digested the experience, I had some thoughts. Then I committed them to writing. Then the writing sat in a folder on my desk for half a year. I think it might just be time to publish it 😛

(Although this should go without saying, I don’t speak for all scientists. I have a personality and I have experiences, and both of those may distort my perspective. Read the following as my personal opinion.)

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Once upon a time, I was a regular reader of ScienceDaily. It’s one of those places where science news gather, and I was interested in science news. I’d never been a big reader of other news, so it suited me perfectly.

Except I’m a pedantic nerd, and reading press releases can be… trying for my kind. I eventually got to the point of asking my supervisor how much scientists had to do with press releases of their papers, because so many of the ones I’d read on SD seemed to have been written by people who either wanted to blow everything out of proportion or simply had no clue.

The boss answered that the researchers would provide source material, but the press office write the actual release, and poor scientists can’t do a whole lot about its final incarnation. He made no secret of his dismissal of the press office, and opinionated little crusader that I am, I felt vindicated.

For a good long while, then, I felt completely justified in griping about journalists. They were, after all, churning out overblown claims and garbling perfectly good science to turn it into news. Was it a wonder, then, that so many people were becoming jaded and mistrustful of science? If you read articles touting miracle cures for cancer and marvelling at the biggest, oldest, most awesomest something ever, if every week decades-old paradigms seem to be turning on their heads, it isn’t at all surprising that you’d end up as some of my online discussion partners did. I saw these people, dismissive of science, firmly convinced that since science changes like the wind, it isn’t worth believing. Today’s knowledge will just become tomorrow’s outdated theory anyway. It infuriated me.

Sometimes, the scientists themselves seemed to be part of the problem. Remember “Ida,” the beautiful Eocene primate fossil? The sensational claims of her being a “missing link” in our own ancestry came from her describers, not their press offices. Likewise, the press release in which palaeontologist John Ruben was quoted as saying (to any vaguely well-informed dinosaur nerd) hugely outlandish things that weren’t even implied, never mind discussed or demonstrated, in the corresponding paper (Quick and Ruben, 2009), could hardly have been all the journalists’ fault.

I was (and still am) angry at such scientists. In my perception, we were at war with anti-science sentiments, and they were playing into the enemy’s hand. Still, it appeared, most of the problem was journalism. Well, this media workshop provided me with a few reality checks. It changed my perspective in some ways, and reinforced my convictions in others. Let me count the ways.

The opening panel in the workshop featured scientists. My first surprise was learning that one of them had absolutely no issue with journalists. He loved making headlines, even if said headlines would make my hair stand on end. He’d found that journalists were generally decent people who want to Get It Right as much as you do.

Then, of course, we got the journalists’ perspective. Their insane work schedules, their pressure to sell stories, their attempt to do so while still retaining accuracy. All in all, they did seem like decent people who wanted to get it right.

But here’s the first problem: given the demands of the job, that can be very difficult to achieve. If, as one of them explained, you might have to report on something even before you’ve had time to actually read the sources, you can very easily make mistakes with the best of intentions.

This is a problem we can help journalists with. Make sure the press office has clear and accurate information so the press release isn’t complete nonsense. When you write a paper, make sure your key points are made clearly and concisely right in the abstract, not in a long and complicated paragraph on page fifteen, where the people writing the news will never see it. If a journalist requests your help, be there to explain and clarify and provide non-wtf quotes. That’s one thing the panellists were very clear about: they need scientists’ cooperation, and they often need it at short notice.

The second problem, I think, is a more fundamental one: scientists and journalists mean something different by “getting it right”. (At least in my idealised world where all scientists think like me. :)) A journalist primarily wants to sell a story, where a scientist primarily wants to increase human knowledge. Of course, scientists also want to sell their stories – no one wants to publish papers that are never cited, and no one wants their career to wither without funding. The crucial difference is, I think, in what each group means by a good news story, and what compromises they are willing to make in order to write one.

For example. To me, direct fossil evidence of how an ancient fish reproduced (Long et al., 2009) is fascinating in itself. I was pretty miffed with the press release accompanying this publication, which turned a relatively mundane finding about the oldest evidence of live birth in vertebrates into a sensational story about the oldest evidence of sex in animals.

If it wasn’t a gigantic digression, I could rant long and hard about all the ways in which this press release mangles science to make it more newsworthy, but the real question is this: does it matter? (To people other than me, I mean.) Is this distortion of facts necessary or even beneficial for getting non-science junkies even a little bit interested? Must we, the scientists, lower our standards of rigour to engage the general public?

Here’s another one. In early 2009, New Scientist ran a controversial feature article about the limitations of the tree of life concept. This article included a discussion of marine ecologist Donald Williamson’s unorthodox hypothesis that the larvae of many animals – which often look very different from their adults and discard most of their baby bodies during metamorphosis – originated from ancient hybridisation events between distantly related critters.

To most people knowledgeable about evolution, genomics or developmental biology, his claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. In our eyes, Williamson is promoting a very implausible hypothesis on weak and superficial evidence. I would only ever bring up his ideas as an example of a “loony theory,” most likely wrong but perhaps interesting from a sociological point of view. But here is a high-profile science magazine, presenting it as an exciting, “different,” and above all, credible alternative to the mainstream view(s) of animal evolution. (In the section on Williamson’s hypothesis, there is no indication of how “fringe” this idea is considered in the scientific community.) The writers at New Scientist were interested in cool stories, and not necessarily in critically examining them.

I see these issues as a fundamental difference between the two professions. I think it’s very difficult to reconcile our demand for accuracy and sound evidence with the journalist’s job. Unlike some audience members at the workshop, I don’t think a formal education in science is necessary to be a good science journalist. Like anything else, a “feel” for science can be picked up by being exposed to lots of it, and scientists are (or should be) there to help out with unfamiliar issues.

However, I do think that we as scientists can’t expect journalists to tell the stories we want them to tell. We can’t expect them not to “dumb things down”, we can’t expect them to respect technical distinctions they don’t see the importance of, and we can’t expect them not to sensationalise a discovery whose true importance is subtle and requires a lot of background knowledge and perhaps a good deal of pre-existing science nerdery to appreciate.

And who knows, maybe the masses reached by sensational news stories are worth a few disillusionments. The angry are always the loudest, and they may not be the majority. I don’t know. But if you are dissatisfied with the way science is represented in the media, griping about journalists to your colleagues isn’t going to solve the problem. This is the age of communication. Anyone can talk to the public. So if you want to change what they hear, why would you wait for others to say the things you want said? Go forth, scientist, and make your voice heard!

***

References:

Quick DE & Ruben JA (2009) Cardio-pulmonary anatomy in theropod dinosaurs: Implications from extant archosaurs. Journal of Morphology 270:1232-1246

Long JA et al. (2009) Devonian arthrodire embryos and the origin of internal fertilization in vertebrates. Nature 457:1124-1127

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