“The fourth Kavli Symposium on Technology and Truths was extremely important and timely,” writes Chinese science writer Jane Qiu who participated in the event. There is a sense of urgency to defend truths in the era of fake news and misinformation.
Given how important it is to get the facts right, it’s surprising how varied the practice of fact-checking is in different media outlets. This lack of standardized practice is disconcerting.
Many industries, such as pharmaceutical and food sectors, have good practice guidelines to ensure standardized practice that is crucial for quality control. Perhaps that’s what we need as well.
It might be a good idea for professional organizations such as WFSJ to take the leadership on this by publishing a good-practice guideline that reflects the consensus of the community. The aim is not to impose certain practices on any publications but to lay out basic principles, minimum standards, and suggested practices.
The guideline could also serve as an important starting point for new publications and new writers as well as an open-access resource that science-journalism schools would refer to. Hopefully, it would become the norm across the industry over time.
There are books on fact checking, but the guideline would be an open-access resource. And it’s more about professional organizations taking a stance on an issue that is absolutely fundamental to our industry and raising journalism standards. In any case, existing books are about fact checking in general journalism without addressing aspects unique to science journalism.
Equally relevant are questions associated with fact-checking bots. As we look to high-tech solutions, it seems more important than ever to come to a consensus first on what fact-checking is about before such questions could be addressed (or fact checkers get sacked too hastily).
As the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in science journalism is set to increase, it’s important to critically appraise its strengths and weaknesses as well as potential pitfalls (such as censorship and the possibility of unintentionally introduced biases).
In the same way that AI holds a mirror to humanity — that is, probing AI helps understand what it means to be human — probing AI in science journalism helps reflect salient characteristics of the industry. This will help us to up our game and do our jobs better, perhaps in ways that AI will never to be able to accomplish no matter how advanced technology becomes.
Jane Qiu is a Science Writer from Beijing, China. She is currently a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT (Academic year 2017-2018) in Boston.