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On science reporting – and blogging, no doubt

Deborah Howell, the Washington Post’s Ombudsman, took a look at science reporting.  She opens by saying:

The job of science reporters is to take complicated subjects and translate them for readers who are not scientifically sophisticated. Critics say that the news media oversimplify and aren’t skeptical enough of financing by special interests.

Howell’s article, while it seems a little choppy, is well worth reading.  Some of the points she makes are obvious – science reporting should be heavier on evidence and lighter on hype; that it’s important to determine whether the results are preliminary or published in a reputable journal/presented at a meeting*; that you need to look at who sponsored the research and other potential conflicts of interest.  But beyond that, there are some things that I hadn’t thought about.  David Brown, a Washington Post science reporter and physician, makes a good point when it comes to evaluating articles about science:

Brown recommends noticing how much space in an article is devoted to describing the evidence of the newsworthiness of the story and how much is devoted to someone telling you what to think about it. “If there isn’t enough information to give you, the reader, a fighting chance to decide for yourself whether something is important, then somebody isn’t doing his job, or hers.”

While this is useful for consumers of science reporting, it’s also something that anyone interested in science communication should keep in the forefront of their minds.

The thing that interested me most in the article was the discussion of what ends up on the front page.  I have always taken for granted the fact that science stories are buried near the end of the first section.  I never thought to ask why? I just figured that was the way it was, that it reflected some immutable law of the universe.  And, of course, that front page stories selected themselves, not that there was editorial input into what ends up on Page 1.  Howell writes

Don J. Melnick, professor of conservation biology at Columbia University, said that if a story “doesn’t sound newsworthy or front page-worthy, it will be buried or not printed at all. That tends to promote people hyping the research. They have to convince their editors to put it in the paper.”

That makes sense – everyone who wants their writing read engages in some amount of promotion or hype.  But the next point is more enlightening

Nils Bruzelius, The Post’s science editor, said, “I thought the story and Page 1 play were justified because the potential impact was significant, even as I understand the criticisms. There’s an inevitable tension between the desire of reporters and editors to get good play for their stories and the need to avoid hype or overstatement, and we feel this very acutely in dealing with scientific or medical stories, because the advances, even those that prove to be part of something very big, usually come in incremental steps. I’ve long believed that science and medical stories enter this competition at some disadvantage. I certainly don’t have data on this but I suspect that most of the top editors who make the front-page decisions tend to be less drawn to these topics than the average reader because, with a few exceptions, they are a naturally self-selected group who got to where they are by dint of their interest and ability in covering such topics as politics, international relations, war and national security — not science.”

Fascinating.

*I think people put too much credence on “presented at a scientific meeting”.  Sure, abstracts are screened, and your colleagues are there to critique your work.  Maybe.  There really isn’t enough information in most abstracts to judge their scientific merit properly.  And while the big sessions and plenary speakers attract a large crowd, many sessions are small and many talks are presented to just a handful of people.  So “presented at a scientific meeting” is a highly uneven measure of the quality of a discovery.

H/T DemFromCT at dKos

One Response

  1. […] Some thoughts on science reporting in the Washington Post. […]

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