From the perfect job to an endangered species: the demise of science journalism and why it matters

Australian science writer and broadcaster Leigh Dayton wrote a blog post about the demise of science journalism for Croakey, the Crikey health blog, which sparked a lot of discussion. Please chime in with your comments.

I used to have the perfect job. As The Australian’s Science Writer and later also Editor of the paper’s professionally oriented health section, I was paid to talk to interesting and important people about interesting and important ideas.

From gene patenting, embryonic stem cell research, polar exploration and climate science to environmental toxins, human evolution, cosmic evolution and the now not so elusive Higgs Boson, it was all my bailiwick.

I wrote across the paper and loved every minute of it, that is until an editorial change – inspired by the Global Financial Crisis and the Newspaper Financial Crisis – put me and my round at the bottom of the newsroom food chain. Little wonder I was restructured out the door last September.

So my perfect job doesn’t exist. And not just at The Australian. The shake-up of the media has led to a shake-out of science reporters worldwide. My perfect job doesn’t exist anywhere.

As Christopher Zara wrote earlier this year in the International Business Times, science journalists are tumbling out of jobs in the US. He cites telling statistics. In 1989, there were 95 newspapers with weekly science sections. Today there are 19.

The UK is experiencing a similar decline, as science writers get pushed from their perch in the daily papers to make way for cheap general reporters and teams of online staff. The Guardian is the exception, keeping its science coverage intact.
In Australia we were reasonably, if not generously, served until recently.

The Sydney Morning Herald had not only long-time Science Editor Deborah Smith – who took redundancy the week I left — but also Nicky Phillips, now sole science bod. Bridie Smith remains at The Age as Science & Technology Reporter and Claire Peddie covers Science and Environment for The Advertiser in Adelaide. Then it gets thin on the ground. Aside from the ABC, the electronic media is a science wasteland.

This worries me greatly. It’s not just because I’m pushed into a career change, but because science, technology, environment and medical research are at the heart of many important current events, issues and dust-ups of today.

Experienced science reporters cover the bases from astrophysics and zoology. They know the players, the issues and the nuts-&-bolts of the scientific method. They can tell a genuine break through from a beat-up or even a stuff-up. Remember the ill-fated faster-than-light neutrino discovery? Lots of breathless headlines worldwide; few considered stories; plenty of red faces.

Most of all, science journos see how science impacts current events. Their round isn’t just funky fillers and creature features gleaned from journal and university press releases. Their slowly vanishing specialty brings intellectual depth and breadth to news.

But this isn’t how editors and producers view the round. It’s an extra. It isn’t sexy. Real journalists do politics, business and economics. Doubt it? How many men are science reporters? Exactly.

So who’s replacing science specialists in the mainstream media? For the so-called discovery stories general reporters do their best with press releases and wire copy does the rest.

When a story takes off, though, political journalists generally muscle in. That’s fine. They’re an intelligent and capable bunch. But the result can be superficial. It’s the equivalent of sending me to cover internal Cabinet disputes or Coalition policy shifts. I’d get the obvious points but miss the context and complexity. Important issues and implications would go unreported.

Consider the recent extreme weather events. Where was the in-depth discussion of Australia’s preparedness for coping with more of same, courtesy of climate change? The submissions to the recent Senate Inquiry Recent Trends in and Preparedness for Extreme Weather Events barely got a mention.

What about the surprise Federal Court decision upholding the validity of patents on the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2?

The decision was covered extensively. There was mention that women might have to pay for breast cancer diagnostic tests and that Cancer Council CEO Ian Olver called for a change to patent laws.

But there was little discussion of what those laws are, how they’re applied to human genes, recent legislative reviews or implications for fundamental research and innovation, let alone alternative approaches to managing emerging knowledge.

Same with Julia Gillard’s announcement that the government will commit A$504.5 million to establish up to 10 Industry Innovation Precincts to boost the nation’s output of globally competitive innovation and industry. The papers covered big business’s loss of the R&D tax break and a few details of where the precincts would be located.

So why is successful innovation even an issue? How and why have successive governments struggled to boost it? Not a peep.

It sounds naive but how can we have a functioning democracy with a poorly informed electorate? You get my drift.

• On Twitter: @leighDayton

Why the World Needs Better Science Journalism

If you regularly do a Twitter search for the words “science journalism,” like I do, you’ll be amazed, amused and sometimes shocked by the amount of bashing science journalism takes in the Twittersphere. It shows that not all science journalism is created equal, and it’s a sign of the times, really: Not all journalists who write about science are actually science journalists. They’re general journalists who were — willingly or out of necessity — given a science story to cover that day.

Newsrooms are under pressure. Revenues are down, budgets are being cut, and journalists are losing their jobs. Sadly, it’s often the specialists whose jobs get axed, which is a bit puzzling. It’s with specialized content, not with general news, that magazines and newspapers can compete for niche dominance. Yet in the face of cuts, some media resort to churnalism, where press releases from the ever-expanding PR departments of universities and research institutions are published unchecked. Others make the journalists who are left behind pick up the beats — beats they’ve never specialized in before.

Yet, never more than today has the need for sound science journalism been so great.

Sure, knowing whether cows line up with the Earth’s magnetic field will probably not change your life, but climate change and electric vehicles will. Knowledge drives the economy of most developed countries and more and more developing countries; academia creates jobs and exports products like technological innovations and scientists. In the face of all this, people need trustworthy and critical science journalism now, and more so in the future.

For example, science has once again become a ball in the game of the upcoming presidential elections. Some of the candidates try to use medieval ideas about science to woo their followers. Since the book “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre, British doctor and critic of scientific inaccuracy, is not compulsory reading for high school students (it should be, by the way), we need journalists with a proper knowledge of science to separate fact from fiction.

Why science needs a specialty

So why should science journalism be considered a specialism? What sets it apart from general news coverage? For starters, just like journalists who cover economics or politics or sports, science journalists require a more than average knowledge of the field they’re covering.

Today’s multitasking journalists cannot be expected to cover all beats equally well. Their editors-in-chief will say that all journalists should be able to cover science; it’s a matter of asking the right questions. That’s partly true, but only a good understanding of the field you are covering lets you know what the right questions are.

Science requires a lot of explaining, since the metabolism of the human body or the workings of quantum mechanics cannot be considered general knowledge. It helps when a journalist knows the difference between an atom and a molecule, correlation and causation, knows what a p value, the placebo effect, control groups and randomized trials are. They should know that reporting on a phase one clinical trial is premature, that not everything that’s found in rats can be instantly translated to humans, and that most studies on diet should be taken with a pinch of salt.

A good science journalist reads the original scientific paper he or she reports on. Knowledge of the scientific lingo is a must. Providing context is another important part of the job; you have to explain to your audience what this research means. Most importantly, a thorough understanding of the process of scientific research is essential. People — including journalists — need to know that science is a never-ending quest; no result can be considered the final truth.

Although science journalism adheres to the same rules as any other kind of journalism, there’s an important distinction in the use of balance. It is considered good journalistic practice, some may even call it compulsory, to give the two sides to every coin equal attention in your story. Proponents and critics of a statement or policy get equal weight in general news stories. In science stories, balance doesn’t work. Of course, critics of a policy or research need to be heard, but they should get the weight they deserve measured by the number of scientists they represent.

A clear example is the broad coverage that critics of climate change have gotten over recent years. Some of those critics, many of whom could not be considered experts, got the spotlight for the sake of balance, even though they represented a small minority. Why is this an issue? Because using balance in science stories can give readers and viewers the idea that an issue is more controversial than it really is. An independent review of the BBC science coverage reached the same conclusion in a report that was presented this summer.

The need for specialized training

Stronger science journalism starts with more and better training — training of general journalists who cover the science beat, training of scientists and science students who want to venture into journalism, and training of science journalists to do more and better investigative journalism.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the be-all and end-all. There are plenty of journalists out there who will manage to bungle a science story even after an extensive training program. These journalists shall remain nameless, since I value their work as it provides me with fresh teaching material. But most journalists want to do a good job in writing their stories. It’s their name in the byline, after all — it’s not just the professional honor of the scientist on the line.

There are already a few excellent training programs in place.

The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT offers journalists the opportunity to immerse themselves in a particular scientific topic. This will foster their ability to provide better and more in-depth coverage of these fields in the future. MIT also organizes boot camps on specific topics like food, medical evidence and neuroscience.

Particularly in developing countries, where scientific discoveries and technological innovations are having more and more impact, training science journalists is key. Think of disease control, agriculture, water management, renewable energy sources, and battling the consequences of a changing climate. The World Federation of Science Journalists, representing 41 associations of science and technology journalists all over the world, recognized the need for journalists in developing countries to cover these topics. They started a mentoring and training program called SjCOOP (Science journalism COOPeration) in 2006 for journalists in African and Arab countries, and the program has been a success. SjCOOP entered its second phase last year for another three-year training program, and is planning an expansion to the Asian and Latin American regions.

Part of SjCOOP was the development of the first online course in science journalism. It’s available in seven languages and open to anyone. The online course covers topics from finding and judging science stories to reporting on scientific controversy and policies to dealing with statistics and social media.

Reporting on science takes skill. The tools to teach these skills are available. We need more universities to offer graduate degrees in science journalism to train the next generation of reporters. We need science to be a regular part of the curriculum in journalism schools. We need editors-in-chief to give their journalists the opportunity to take science journalism workshops.

We need this because the need for science and technology coverage will increase — on the front pages, in the economy and business sections, in the science sections, and in the angry Twitter sphere.

This article was originally published on PBS Mediashift on 29 November 2011.

When Science Journalism meets Citizen Journalism

This article was written by Chao-Ping Hong (Taiwan), a Master student in the science journalism course at Delft University of Technology. Her assignment was to write an opinion article about the influence of citizen journalism on science journalism. I hope her fresh take will inspire you.

Twitter, hyperlinks, comments. Type, click, and send.  Without doubt, the evolution of technologies has brought us to a new media era, one that says “citizen journalism.”

From climate change to nanotechnology, bio food to energy plants, citizen journalism is shaking and shaping the structure of traditional science journalism. When discussing the risks and opportunities of citizen journalism with regard to science journalism, we, as science journalists, should rethink the nature and objectives of science journalism. “Should we question whether there has been a paradigm shift in the dominant belief system?” asked Denis Ruellan in “To think ‘citizen journalism’”.

The answer would definitely be yes. In fact, there seems to be various critical challenges as well as opportunities when it comes to citizen journalism, where neutrality and objectivity are most often questioned and discussed.

But, as science journalists, we shouldn’t regard citizen journalism as a threat. We should see it rather as a reinforcement which will bring forth opportunities in the re-creation of science journalism.

Engaging Participation
When we look at science journalism from a communication angle, citizen journalism can certainly inspire public participation of science. Take blogging as an example. The gathered force of human powers is creating dynamic agendas to meet the public’s demand to learn, understand and talk about science.

“Blogs offer a diverse range of sources and contributing citizen commentators, which is not possible through modern corporate mainstream outlets”, said Dr. Linda Kenix in “Blogs as Alternative”. Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, says in his weblog PressThink that blogging provides freedom of the press sphere, creating an “open” system to everyone. With the alliance of citizen journalism, science and technology information would become more closely related to people’s lives, initiating and engaging more participants in discussions of science.

Generating Perspectives
Furthermore, citizen journalism could easily crack down the “hard science” to a wider spectrum of topics. The variety of opinions in citizen journalism could place science in a more ethical, social perspective, whereas traditional coverage of science news is mainly focused on technical views and factual details.

At ethics forums, heated discussions and debates spark over controversial issues such as nanotechnology, life-science, robotics, etc. Also, through comments and real-time feedbacks, readers have equal opportunities to react to technology issues, such as the government’s change of policy in the regulation of CO2 consumption or implementation of nuclear power plants.

Our Roles in the Re-creation of Science Journalism
Citizen journalism is a rapidly growing phenomenon that will inevitable challenge the nature of science journalism. Thus, as science journalists, embracing citizen journalism and its opportunities also means that we have to adapt ourselves to this paradigm shift intelligently.

We will have to learn to encompass and also filter out various sources efficiently in the dynamic information era, be familiarized with different means of media (forums, blogs, etc.), equip ourselves continuously with scientific knowledge, and be fully prepared to meet feedbacks from enthusiastic readers.

Most of all, we should always be thinking and practicing the important elements: objectivity and neutrality, with open perspectives and passions in communicating science to our readers.

When science journalism meets citizen journalism, it’s time for us to seek the potentials and opportunities in the re-creation of science journalism.

Critical and smart 2010

“In this world of ours now, to be an informed participant in the great conversation of mankind is to have an alert awareness and understanding of what’s happening in the world.” In the video below the British philosopher A.C. Grayling reflects on the importance of being literate, and especially scientifically literate, so that people can think critically for themselves.

Science journalists help to empower people to think for themselves by reporting the knowledge and understanding from science about the world we live in, and to be critical of claims that are made in science.

Even though author Malcolm Gladwell seems to be unaware that mostly generalist journalists are surviving at the newspapers that are cutting staff, I hope he will be right when he says that “the role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.”

On behalf of the science journalism blog I wish our profession and all of us contributing to it a critical and smart 2010!

Dutch fact checking project offers valuable tips for journalists

Journalism and New Media students at Leiden University and Fontys School of Journalism in Tilburg, both in the Netherlands, scrutinised media reports last year, functioning as fact checkers. Their supervisors Alexander Pleijter, Peter Burger and Theo Dersjant wrote a contribution for the recently published anthology ‘Journalism brought into discredit’ produced by the Catholic Institute for Mass Media (KIM, University of Nijmegen) in which they described what the students had discovered. The part of that chapter that looks at causes and offers suggestions is reproduced below. The original Dutch version was published at De Nieuwe Reporter website.

Flawed facts: six causes
The fact checkers came across news items which were not always corroborated by facts. They also found exaggerated information, statistics taken out of context, fabricated problems and muddle-headed experts. They even stumbled across a case of plagiarism. Journalists make mistakes, but whether they make many or few mistakes – well, everyone will have their own opinion on that. We have tried to discover a pattern in these mistakes. The most important causes can be summarised as follows.

1. Unknown sources.
Many of the errors the students noted would not have been made if the journalists concerned had requested a report or phoned up a researcher. At least, if that had been possible – which is often not the case because the sources may not be disclosed or the research has not yet been published. The Code of Bordeaux states with good reason (Article 3): “Journalists should report using only the facts of which they know the origin”.
An example: Bureaucracy is taking up less of Dutch people’s time and money. This was the conclusion the television programme ‘Rondom 10’ drew from statistics published by the ministries of Justice and Home Affairs. None of the newspapers that reported this news had read the research reports – and neither had the TV programme editors.
In order to form an opinion on the reliability of any research, American quality media start from the premise that one should know who commissioned the research, who paid for it and which method was used to collect the data. If the research is not accessible, journalists should state that – or throw the whole subject in the waste-paper bin.

2. Lack of subtlety and context.
News facts and subtleties do not go well together. Trusting the Dutch News Agency ANP, various newspapers reported that children were suffering from ‘St Nicolas Stress’, referring to a traditional holiday in the Netherlands. The agency had not included the information that the expert who made this statement was only talking about autistic children; they become nervous on seeing all the goodies on 5 December stacked up in the shops long before that date. In fact, the ANP had brought in an educational expert who did not believe this story, but this subtlety was excluded from the versions printed by the newspapers De Telegraaf and Metro.
Ready-made salads are vulnerable to Listeria contamination, according to the ANP (the bacterium having killed around 20 Dutch people in 2006). The source of this information was a Wageningen University PhD student who was not talking about ready-made salads at all, but about the danger of wrongly cooled food products.
A related source of error is lack of context. Is there any previous research on the subject? What do other specialists think? A professor of sales and account management in Rotterdam told various media, including the popular Pauw & Witteman TV chat show that, within five years, brain scans would help to judge the suitability of job applicants. However, it was not made clear that he was not a brain scan expert and that scientists who were experts in the field did not believe in his vision of the future.
Journalists also tend to rely on far too few measurements in making their claims about trends. TheSp!ts newspaper, for example, opened on 21 October with the rather worrying headline: “Child killers on the increase”. The gist of this report was that increasing numbers of children in the Netherlands are murdered by their parents (whether natural, foster or step parents). The source for this article was the extremely reliable Statistics Netherlands (the CBS). The article compared the numbers of children murdered in 2000 with the numbers in 2007. There was certainly an increase, but anyone who requested the statistics for the intervening and previous years – as a Tilburg student did – would discover there was no question of an increase. The point was – there were extremely few murders in 2000.

This is how presumptions become certainties, little chance becomes an enormous risk, a few measurements suddenly signal a trend, and random examples turn into newsworthy phenomena.

3. Inadequate research methods.
According to a British professor of psychology, women go shopping more often and make larger numbers of irresponsible purchases in the ten days before menstruating. The BBC, De Telegraafnewspaper and other media reported this as news but anyone making the effort to study the research report would see that the method was totally inadequate and the results inconsequent. For example, there was no significant difference in the degree of compulsive buying between the last and middle period of the menstrual cycle. In other words, it could just as easily have been coincidence.
We get the impression that editorial offices do not give a high priority to insight into research methods or an understanding of statistics. Or perhaps they do have insight into these matters but are unable to see the consequences. Internet polls are often unreliable because those taking part select themselves; everyone recognizes this to be a problem, but that does not prevent news media from presenting the results of some such polls as news.
One example is the Dutch website, a website for reporting aggression. It held an online survey from which the media concluded that aggression towards public servants is a big and growing problem.
An even more idiotic example: one of the fact checkers came across some news about gossiping men (they do this more than women: on average 76 minutes per day! And women only 52!) on a British website called OnePoll where people taking part can earn money by filling in a questionnaire. The more rapidly – and more imprecisely – they do this, the more they earn.

4. Biased sources.
All journalists get it hammered into them that sources should be unbiased. Nevertheless, the fact checkers discovered countless reports along the lines of ‘We from Brand X recommend Brand X’. Another example was a claim from two computer games magazines that gaming was the cheapest of all hobbies. A fact checker calculated, however, that the board game Settlers of Catan costs much less and that you could always go walking or do some knitting, should the board game also prove too expensive.
Some more examples: those organising the Emigration Fair commissioned a survey which concluded that many Dutch people are thinking of emigrating; the job vacancy site Monsterboard commissioned a poll which showed that most of those responding do not have the perfect job; the person responsible for all the ATMs and point-of-sale machines knows that PIN usage prevents robbery with violence – even though he has no figures to prove this.

5. Editorial intervention.
Mistakes can arise when changes made by an editor are not checked with the author of the original piece. Various regional Dutch newspapers published an alarming report about an ‘army of cats’ that was ‘spreading death and destruction’; in other words an explosive growth in the number of stray cats in the Netherlands was causing a wave of stench, filth, feline howling and other such problems. The journalist who had written the original text for the regional paper, the Leeuwarder Courant, did not recognize his own story when he saw the version produced by the press agency GPD and then once again by the local Brabants Dagblad. At each editing stage, the stray-cat problem had become even more sensational.

6. Fabricated explanations.

The facts are correct but the explanation is not. Does the annual change to Summer Time cause an increase in the numbers of heart attacks? Yes, there is certainly something strange about the statistics on heart attacks, but scientists cannot agree that this is due to Summer Time. Do people cope with their worries about the recession by eating more meat snacks? Yes, more snacks are being sold, butthis fact cannot be ascribed to the credit crisis because that had not started when the snack sales were investigated.
The credit crisis, that was raging in the period our fact checkers were at work, is a category in itself when it comes to reasons for broadcasting news and all the whys and wherefores. When the students were checking news about the desire to emigrate, they stumbled across one expert who ascribed the increasing emigration to the recession and yet another expert who noticed that emigration was dropping because of the recession.
The Metro newspaper, using exaggerated statistics, noticed the crisis was causing an increase in the numbers of stray cats and dogs – dumped by their poverty-stricken owners. The television current affairs programme Netwerk, in its coverage of the large numbers of pets that, because of the crisis, were ending up in special homes for stray cats and dogs, based their report on research that predated the credit crisis. The Netwerk editor responsible said the following: “Hard facts weren’t necessary in this case”.

Escape the fact checker’s knife
Truth and factual information are both essential to journalism but the urge to produce entertaining, striking or out-of-the-ordinary stories sometimes prevails. A commonly recurring reaction from journalists to questions from fact checkers was: “I didn’t set out to write scientific analysis; it was lightweight news, something nice to read at breakfast”.

They are not saying that lies are OK, but they are defending their right to be economical with the truth. One is at liberty to give facts an interesting slant to make them newsworthy. If scientific research shows that injecting L-Cystine into rats causes them to have an erection, that is not newsworthy. However, if a journalist learns that L-Cystine can be converted into hydrogen sulphide and he remembers it is the stuff that makes rotten eggs stink so abominably, before you know it, the headline is ‘Men get a hard-on from rotten eggs’. Factually incorrect, but it sounds great and will undoubtedly attract lots of readers.

A term like L-Cystine also immediately demonstrates where things can so easily go wrong. Many journalists do not possess the necessary knowledge to understand scientific subjects fully. Just try reading an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with all those scientific terms and statistical analyses. Try making head or tail of that!

And that’s assuming you have the time to read a research report of that kind. Many journalists do not even receive a copy of the research they are writing about. Many newspaper articles are written using press releases or reports from other media. The latter, particularly, lead to news being spread about without anybody raising the alarm and, anyway, why should one do a check? This is just meant to be entertaining news, surely? Why spend time poring over a research report? It is just a question of choices: checking takes time, so is that subject worth the time? This applies to the enjoyable – and thus not too serious – news reports: they should be written only if they do not require much time.

The above examples seem to suggest that fact finding is not a priority for many a journalist. The requirement to deliver necessitates quantity rather than quality. Furthermore, editorial staff seem to be limited in their ability to correct themselves and to learn from their own mistakes. They are not used to tackling each other about trashy texts. You need courage to tell a colleague that something is inadvisable, or that they have allowed rubbish to be printed in the newspapers. The consequence of this non-intervention culture is an inability to self-regulate, and this leads to unnecessary errors.

For editors who wish to break away from this culture, here are a few suggestions for escaping the knives of watchful students. These suggestions arise from our experiences with the fact-checking projects.

  1. Don’t be afraid to check stories to the point they fall apart. Students often came up with correct stories that were certainly just as entertaining as the original (but erroneous) news. You could, for example, accept the press release from the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research which stated that the number of serious accidents in 30-kilometre zones increased sharply in the period 2002-2007. You could also check the facts and discover that the number of 30-kilometre zones also increased sharply in this period. And this also leads to a nice report about the Institute disseminating statistics which should be taken with a pinch of salt.
  2. Be critical of other media. News facts published by the BBC or the Guardian are not necessarily correct; they make mistakes too. Here again, reporting errors made by other media can produce sound as well as entertaining reports. If all the media are claiming that men get an erection from the smell of rotten eggs, you can write a splendid piece in which the researcher rejects this claim as a load of rubbish.
  3. Make sure the necessary expertise is present in the editorial office. It is really not necessary to staff the whole office with statisticians and scientists in order to prevent errors. However, it is essential to have several editors with a basic knowledge of figures, research and statistics. There should also be someone who can function as an information desk and who has the courage to point out colleagues’ errors. When we aired these suggestions in an editorial office, the editor-in-chief’s response was “the need to employ scientists to write about science is just as great as the need to employ a footballer to write about sport”. OK, but the other extreme is a football reporter who does not know what ‘offside’ means. Or a science journalist who does not understand the principles and pitfalls of research.
  4. Throw out idiotic rules –such as ‘at least 500 people should be interviewed in a research project’. There are innumerable large-scale – yet inadequate – research projects. At the same time, a great deal of research with fewer than 500 participants is of excellent quality. It appears that a journalist seldom looks at the non-responses in surveys even though they can provide an evaluation of the survey’s reliability. If 500 people respond to a survey and 5000 slammed the door, what does that say about that particular piece of research? Rules like this do not protect one against fiascos. Editors with an understanding of and insight into methodology would in fact be much more useful.
  5. Request figures and research reports. Do not be kidded into believing something has increased. Ask for the figures! Companies will often benefit from research being publicised in the news but, at the same time, are unwilling to release the research report. How can a journalist check to see if the research has been well done? Do not let yourself be manipulated; do not publish information about research that you have not been allowed to cast your eye over. Otherwise, you are making it very easy for these companies to manoeuvre you into giving them free publicity.
  6. Consult the experts. You may not have the necessary expertise to evaluate a piece of research yourself. In that case, do not be embarrassed about seeking the advice of the researchers in question or other experts. They can point out any wrongful interpretations or shortcomings in the research. Take, for example, a research project which showed that vegetarians have an increased chance of developing intestinal cancer. Check with the experts to see if these results correspond with those of any previous research.

If all journalists and editorial staff took these suggestions to heart, our brilliant didactic concept would soon be superfluous. Fortunately, it appears that not everyone feels enthusiastic about fact checking. One journalist was unwilling to respond to our students because, as he said, “You fact checkers are always a few steps behind us”. Maybe so, but we are watching your backs!

Why you should attend the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009

Still haven’t registered for the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009? Co-director Julie Clayton tells the Science Journalism blog why you should join her and many other science journalists this summer in London.

What is the World Conference of Science Journalists all about?

Who is behind the World Conference of Science Journalists?

What’s on the programme?

Is it three days of just listening to talks?

Who can apply and how do I register?

I’m a freelancer. What’s in it for me?

I’m convinced, I’ll be there! One last time for those who are not completely sure yet. Why should they be there?

When in Doubt, Ask Questions (Balance Special, 4/4)

This article is written by Marc Pagen (The Netherlands).

For a novice in science journalism the current debate on balance, or rather the alleged inappropriate use of it, is puzzling. As a journalism student one is imprinted with the golden questions of journalism: “who, why, what, where, when, how, and so what?” In short, one is taught to be inquisitive and investigative. Furthermore, from virtually the first days in the classroom, there can be no misunderstanding about the journalist’s responsibility for informing the public and providing a full range of information with which to make informed decisions about a given topic. So why the controversy about balance in science reporting?

It has been said that journalists like to equate their professional norms, especially objectivity, with those in the scientific world and therefore implicitly trust scientific claims. However, there is no such thing as balance in science, which is an evidence-based discipline. Most issues are more complex than “two sides of the story”, and at a certain point overwhelming scientific evidence can diminish a “side” of an issue. It has been shown that giving equal attention to “all sides” can misrepresent the prevailing scientific consensus.

To me, the principles of journalism, such as objectivity and its recent lexical replacements, fairness, balance, accuracy, truth, and comprehensiveness, are not the real problem. However, a lazy form of journalism that makes no attempt to investigate scientific claims, is a very real problem.

Journalists have been reproached to possess insufficient scientific knowledge and therefore to fall all too easily for scientific-sounding claims that they can’t adequately evaluate on their own. Again, the problem lies in accepting claims on mere face value. Even when a journalist lacks knowledge on a topic, he or she should be able to access people who have and have them do the evaluation. Isn’t that what journalism is all about: asking the right questions?

In general, journalists should treat scientific claims with a healthy dose of skepticism, and find out what major peer-reviewed papers or assessments have to say about them. This professional proving ground can inform journalists about the relative merits of scientific claims, and allow them to “balance” their writings accordingly.

Any absence of such signs of scientific scrutiny should encourage journalists to dig even deeper beneath scientific claims and look into the credentials and funding of the scientists who embrace an alternative viewpoint. They should report if an alternative is supported only by industrial interests and be particularly wary of viewpoints embraced only by outsiders who have no credibility in the scientific discipline.

To me, balance is about investigating the context of claims and viewpoints, especially the how’s and why’s. Outsiders’ opinions might be interesting, but they’re not theories, and they might not deserve any coverage at all. It’s the responsiblity of a science journalist to make this distinction clear to the public.

Accuracy Trumps Balance in Science Journalism (Balance Special, 3/4)

This article is written by Kurian Joseph Kattukaren (India), and is also published on his blog.

Hardly any journalism student enters the profession without the mantra of not being patronizing – presenting the facts from all sides and allowing the reader make up his mind – drummed into their ears, and, as often the case is, the student takes this advice to heart. This canon of journalistic profession, of being balanced, is indispensable when it comes to politics and economics. These spheres of human thought and action allow a multiplicity of views and provide ample space for different opinions. When writing about these spheres, it is essential that a journalists gives equal weight to this diversity and allow the reader the opportunity to make up his mind. Unfortunately, over the last three decades, the application without judgment of this balanced reporting canon has resulted not only in the integrity of the scientific process being questioned when it comes to global warming and intelligent design, but also in a misunderstanding on the part of journalists regarding how the scientific process works. The consequence of these journalistic lapses have resulted in popular discourse diverging from accepted scientific discourse, and we are all the poorer
because of it.

Science as practiced at the highest level is a process which undergoes intense scrutiny called peer review and is performed by the scientific community itself. Thus, any theory, conjecture or experimental result proposed is evaluated within the scientific community for its validity before being accepted as scientific knowledge. When in the guise of balanced reporting, the “scientific fringe,” as Chris Mooneycalls the group who often goes against the scientific consensus, is offered a platform to air their views, the journalist is debasing this peer review process.

Chris Mooney in the conclusion to his article, “Blinded by Science,” addresses the trouble science journalists face when reporting on scientific consensus formed through peer review. What if the scientific consensus is wrong and the “scientific fringe” was right? It begs the question, are science journalists supposed to be the a microphone for airing the scientific consensus or if there is no place for skepticism in scientific reporting?
Skepticism has its place in scientific reporting, but in a peer-reviewed world it takes a backseat to accurate reporting of the consensus developed among the scientists. The journalist has less reason to be skeptical of peer-reviewed scientific results, as the process is conducted by knowledgeable, competent and qualified people, and it filters out scientific views and results that satisfying rigorous standards of scientific proof from those that do not.
Mooney gives two remarkable examples of the “scientific fringe,” Galileo in the 16th century and Einstein in the 19th century, respectively, who turned out to be right. These two examples are also instructive regarding the journalistic norm of balanced reporting.

In Galileo’s case, the scientific consensus was hardly one the scientific community arrived at after rigorous deliberation and proof. It was a view imposed on the scientific community by the Catholic church, and a good journalist reporting – if he was allowed to report freely – on the scientific consensus during Galileo’s time would have added a healthy dose of skepticism to his reports. The Galileo scenario is highly unlikely to occur nowadays. In most countries where science is practiced, scientists enjoy broad freedoms to formulate their own views and express their own opinions freely that there is hardly any reason for journalists to doubt the integrity of the scientific process. The journalism should also reflect this confidence in the workings of science.

Einstein’s case was different. The “Theory of Relativity” when introduced, most physicists found the theory conceptually very difficult to grasp, and the scientific consensus was pointedly against the theory. It is worth pondering, should science journalist have take the side of the scientific consensus when the debate around relativity was raging?

It is my opinion that a journalist, who had espoused the scientific consensus at that time was professionally doing the right thing, for he was unlikely to be in a better position than the physics community to better understand the theory and take sides. Moreover, unlike the scientific community in Galileo’s period, the physics community during Einstein’s time was hardly under pressure from external powers to take sides.

These two examples indicate the limitations of balance as a journalistic norm when it comes to science reporting. The scientific consensus, especially when it is formed voluntarily through a peer-reviewed process, is to be trusted. The consensus might be wrong – as in the case of Einstein – but  the more often that not it is right, and it’s the job of the journalist to communicate this consensus as accurately as possible. It is also the reason why accuracy as a journalistic norm trumps balance when it comes to science.

Science Needs No Balance (Balance Special, 2/4)

This article is written by Roelof van den Berg (The Netherlands).

Balance, together with depersonalization and accuracy makes up the journalistic norm of objectivity each of us (journalists) tries to adhere to. But, dealing with scientific content, balance might not be the right way to obtain objectivity. In this article, I point out some of the difficulties of using balance in journalistic articles on science.

Balance brings bias
A bias introduced by the use of balance in media coverage has been shown on the subject of climate change by Maxwell and Jules Boykoff in this paper. Boykoff and Boykoff showed that while there was international consensus by scientists, mass media gave relatively much attention to critics of research showing anthropogenic influence on climate change. Due to this balanced coverage it seemed to the world that scientists where uncertain about anthropogenic influence, despite the fact that there was consensus. Industrial lobby groups sponsoring scientists got out their message more widely thanks to balance. Should we use balance at all times? I think not.

Clashing opinions
The main problem causing the bias seems to be the difference between scientists and journalists. Much of the differences are explained by JoAnn Valenti in this paper. Scientists are experts on their own field and have loads of knowledge on their expertise. According to Valenti, they are in search for complete and objective knowledge. Journalists are not experts on one subject, but tend to be mostly generalists. Because it is difficult for them to research an objective truth themselves, they rely heavily on expert sources, like scientists in our case. In order to create journalistic objectivity from these sources, journalists seek out opposing opinions. They let the sources advocate their positions, making every subject to a debate while there might not be one at all.

Minority rules
While scientific truth arises from evidence based research, journalistic objectivity comes from combining sources. In the case of global warming, journalists mostly gave both opinions equal opportunity to advocate their opinion. The scientific consensus was towards anthropogenic influence, but the mass media reported it as if there was no consensus. Journalists might do better to let balance go and first find out if there is consensus on a subject. When only a small part of scientific society thinks differently, this difference in group size should be clearly stated and emphasized, but it might be even better to leave out the minority.

Sponsored scientists
Lobby groups sometimes sponsor scientists as part of their media campaign. Sharon Beder shows the field of forces in her paper on manipulation of the news. In the case of the global warming debate, skeptics on anthropogenic influence where sponsored by industrialist lobby groups trying to save their skin. Journalists should be aware of the hidden agendas of their sources in order to give value to their opinions. We should try to understand what the motives are for a scientist to research a subject and who his sponsors are. A little bit of research into the background of sources can give insight into their motives. The context in which a scientist operates should also be named in articles as far as it is possible to do so.

Sharing sources
While it is not always easy or possible to check the full background of a source in order to evaluate its opinion, we can also find out about this context by means of an interview. According to Wikipedia: “A journalist (also called a newspaperman) is a person who practices journalism, the gathering and dissemination of information about current events, trends, issues, and people while striving for viewpoint that is not biased.” Therefore, it seems to me to be a good idea to share gathered knowledge about the background of sources with each other via Wikipedia. This makes the task of checking backgrounds of sources take less and less effort.

In order to provide the world with a proper view on science, the scientific consensus needs to be communicated, if available. Such a consensus is sometimes hard to find, but scientists working for lobby groups can be found when journalists actively share information about their sources. Using online media like Wikipedia, this gives more insight into the motivation of scientists to conduct research. When publishing about a scientific outcome it is necessary to provide readers with background information about the context in which researchers work.

So, in short:

  • Find out if there is scientific consensus
  • Leave out minorities when there is scientific consensus
  • Make interests of each party clear
  • Disseminate knowledge about sources

Journalism in Transition: Accuracy Tips the Scale over Balance (Balance Special, 1/4)

This article is written by Katherine Celler (Canada).

As all good journalists have learned, central to responsible news writing is objectivity, accuracy, fairness and a balance of competing opinions. Yet in science journalism, when scientific evidence may favour one perspective, is balance still justified? Particularly in this field, accuracy, not balance, should be taken as the highest standard.

Balance demands that all sides of an issue – including all relevant information and stakeholder perspectives – are presented in an objective manner. But what if the balance of perspectives is 99 to 1? Does one maverick opinion deserve to be in the news, when the majority of scientists have come to a consensus on a topic? Does this not just cause public confusion and misperception?

In an article entitled ‘A Question of Balance: The Autism-Vaccine Controversy in the British and American Elite Press,’ author Clarke concurs that balanced reporting can represent a form of bias which can conflict with accuracy. Despite the overwhelming majority of scientists not supporting a link between autism and a childhood vaccine, in the name of balance, journalists gave the impression that the evidence was uncertain.

In the words of Clarke, ‘media coverage represents a social relationship with news consumers.’ Journalists do not only provide people with information, but also identify problems, stakeholders and possible solutions. Balance shapes what information and which perspectives are provided.

So the question is: how can journalists adhere to the balance norm, with all of its responsibilities, while still conveying truthful information in their reporting?

Accuracy comes to the rescue. Accuracy involves analyzing details, verifying facts, avoiding errors, and ensuring that the most supported view point is conveyed. When a scientific consensus has been reached, accuracy demands that journalists report the main scientific conclusion – even when an opposing viewpoint exists.

In the end, it comes down this: in science journalism, accuracy tips the scale over balance.