The Erosion of Scientific Journalism

Originally published here.

I’ve had my doubts with scientific journalism before (see here). My beef was, in short, how can a journalist who has not been well educated in a particular field effectively cover that field’s scientific discoveries? How can they understand the small nuances and assumptions, those that professionals aren’t always familiar with, those that can often change the course of an entire field for a decade or more, and report on them to the lay person? My conclusion: they can’t, but neither can all scientists.

A recent article published in PLoS ONE has addressed part of this very issue: Reporting Science and Conflicts of Interest in the Lay Press (Cook et al., 2007). The authors searched through over 1100 articles published in 2004 and 2005, and categorized them according to “discipline of study being reported on” and whether, among other things, the financiers of the authors and studies were identified in the articles.

Although this information is readily available to journalists, only 38% of the stories identified the studies’ funders, while only 11% of the financial ties of the researchers were reported.

Worse yet, just under half of these articles portrayed the information in either a positive or neutral light (i.e. “great job, and see here for more benefits of said research” or “here’s what they observed, make up your own damn mind”), while only ~2% were critical of them (i.e. “what are the ethical ramifications of such work?”).

The authors then argue, “Journalists work under many different constraints [such as editors, deadlines, etc], but nonetheless news reports of scientific research were incomplete, potentially eroding public trust in science.”

First, is this conclusion valid? I believe so. The ivory spires of academia aren’t typically painted with money begotten from private sources. Indeed, most purely academic pursuits are government funded. Therefore, to many academics, funding is never an item of contention when dealing with a piece of research. Rather, the science is what matters, and you prove your own trustworthiness among your peers through your work.

However, in the non-academic world, who’s paying whom plays a big role in how we decide whether to trust a given information source or not: if an oil exec, backed by millions of dollars and a deep desire to keep his/her job, tells you “everything is fine”, will you believe them over the academic funded by the public coffers? I sincerely hope not, but such is not always the case.

Therefore, yes – public trust is likely being eroded, like a house falling over a flooded river bank into the waters of celebrity gossip, tween magazines, and pseudo-political analyses.

What, then, might contribute a greater proportion to this great erosion – the flood (general public untrustworthiness), or the river banks (the journalists role of writing trustworthy scientific articles)?

Journalists are, after all, the ultimate segue between science and the general public in the current media model. Therefore, if one plans properly, and builds a solid foundation, the flood will pass and the Academy’s towers will remain standing. I think Cook et al. have clearly demonstrates this is not occurring.

Are some journalists lazy? Arguably, yes, since so few articles analyzed by Cook et al. included information on the works’ funding sources. After all, if they were to follow what may be the “Golden Rules” of Health and Medicine reporting (The Commonwealth Fund’s “Tipsheet for Reporting on Drugs, Devices and Medical Technologies”), and typically the general rule for all reporting, there wouldn’t be such an under representation of this information.

Why then, were so few articles reported on as either positive or neutral, when most were certainly not “great”? Well, the positive aspects of a particular discovery are very easy to grasp – it requires no more background work than to quote mine the introduction and discussion of any given article. Furthermore, simply reporting “as is” requires even less work.

Before attending the Future Directions in Science Journalism conference in October, out of naivety I would have ended this with, “shame on you journalists, shame on you!” I’ve now come to realize this really isn’t the case, as those who attended the conference would attest to, because journalists aren’t scientists. They don’t have virtually unlimited amounts of time to work on a given problem, or write a given paper. Scientists, by their very nature, must do this in order to successfully publish in a peer reviewed journal. On the contrary, journalists have editors to deal with and deadlines to meet. Under these circumstance, its easier to to agree with a given piece of work, or simply report it without any further thought.

So where does the future of public scientific discourse lie? I would argue it is the Academy’s responsibility to demand proper science reporting from the media. How? Through grass roots organization of a coalition of scientists dedicated to accurate, fair, and unbiased scientific reporting. Many individuals that might read this will likely think, “But scientists are terrible at explaining their work to the general public!”, just as many of you commented similarly on my previous essay.

I disagree. SEED’s ScienceBlogs is a great example of how scientists from many different fields have come together to form a spectacular and engaging public conversation on science. Furthermore, the Bloggers for Peer Reviewed Research Reporting (BPR3) are currently putting together a grass roots movement as it, “…strives to identify serious academic blog posts about peer-reviewed research…”.

The ivory spires of the Academy are slowly tipping into the river, while the current model of media is shoveling sand away from the foundation. Perhaps its time we take another look at how scientific discoveries are being communicated, and, instead of educating those reporting, empower those with the knowledge with the skills to better convey their knowledge.

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: davidsemeniuk.com

2 Responses to “The Erosion of Scientific Journalism”

  1. Kerrie

    I more or less agree. I think that scientists also need to take responsibility for what they publish, and avoid “sexy” pieces that have little value beyond providing the next MSN news headline. Studies like “Hey ladies, chocolate and martinis are actually good for you”, only prove that you can publish AND perish in academia!

    Another thing that annoys me is what I call “research poaching”. A scientist takes something that has already been proven, then publishes a variation on it that doesn’t actually give new information. An example from University of Calgary is a professor publishing that regular exercise reduces risk of cancer. Only, darn, that’s already been studied, so she changes it to housework exercise and breast cancer. Apparently, inhaling sodium dichloro-S-triazinetrione dihydrate from my toilet cleaner isn’t a health concern, and exercise is only worthwhile if it serves Husband. Never mind, it made the news so it must be useful!

  2. Chris Cochrane

    I don’t think we can afford to heap all the blame on unwitting journalists and the hardworking ‘chocolate and martini’ researchers of the world. Those of us plodding away in the trenches of basic science must strike a balance when it comes to relating to the media, even when we don’t know we’re doing it!

    Public relations exercises to explain to tax payers where billions of their dollars are being spent are vitally important; however, we must resist the urge to over-promise, lest we under-deliver. Nearly every scientist who has applied for funding or written the discussion for a paper is guilty of some degree of hyperbole with respect to the applicability and potential of our science. Such optimism-for-the-purpose-of-persuasion is at the root, or at least near the root, of bad scientific reporting in the popular media. For the minority of scientists that engage actively with the media, for fundraising purposes or as radio or TV show guests, the requirement for humility is more obvious, but as the kernel of most mainstream science stories descends directly from peer-reviewed articles, humility ought to be a priority in that forum as well.

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