The balancing act of science writing

The recently exposed unethical practices within the Murdoch empire probably confirmed most people’s worst nightmares. We know that the world of journalism has lately changed considerably. For one, there are more mass media channels than ever before and reporting of news is not a privilege to professional journalists anymore. With the possibility for anyone nowadays to leave their opinion somewhere in cyberspace, no wonder that particularly newspapers are in survival mode. Those that can keep their head afloat may only be able to do so by using clever tricks, which in the case of Murdoch’s media powerhouse clearly turned dirty.

There is certainly the notion that in the political arena, many journalists have lost control over news coverage by having become reliant on government sources. This seems the only way to have access to quick and easy information from ‘credible’ sources in order to cover current issues and to meet ever dooming deadlines. The question how much such news reporting on current affairs can be trusted is likely to be a rhetorical one.

Now, your next thought may be that it surely has to be a completely different ball game when it comes to science writing for the broader public. According to research into science journalism and communication, apparently not!  Evidently, coverage of hot issues in science can be equally sensationalised, distorted or reported in an unbalanced manner. Just to get it accepted by an editor, who most often is not a scientist. And it may all come down to a different interpretations of what it means for information to be newsworthy!

Scientists tend to consider research findings newsworthy only after they are endorsed by peers through replication, confirmation and peer review. Journalists consider fresh, dramatic and possibly tentative research findings newsworthy (Geller et al. 2005).

The friction between the ones discovering science news and those reporting it to the public has more recently been studied by Gail Geller at the John Hopkins University, Baltimore (US). Analysis of experiences of both parties involved in news coverage of genetic progress, above all, showed that trust formed the foundation for good communication and cooperation. This then led to a higher quality of accurate reporting and mutual approval of publishable content.

What nevertheless remained was a difference in opinion on whether the news coverage was intended to educate or inform the public. In the view of the science writer, the expectation of an interviewed scientist to educate the masses could only be met by informing the public through the translation of jargon in lay terms:

….every time you define a term you’re educating.

Only science writers with a scientific background may be knowledgeable and skilled enough to do so. They are therefore preferred over science journalists by most scientist. But where does that leave science journalism for the (near) future? Science writing has become a double edged sword by requiring insight science knowledge, appreciation for the way science works as well as good social, interviewing and writing skills. A balancing act that maybe only a few can perform with integrity.

Reference

Geller G, BA Bernhardt,  M Gardner, J Rodgers and NA Holtzman (2005). Scientists’ and science writers’ experiences reporting genetic discoveries : Towards an ethic of trust in science journalism. Genetics in Medicine 7(3):198-205.

Credits

British tabloids: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_tabloids_-_July_5_2011.jpg .  By Bobbie Johnson (Flickr: July 5, 2011) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A balancing act:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Reynolds,_9th_Street_NW_-_Washington,_D.C..jpg . By Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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By Anke van Eekelen

4 comments on “The balancing act of science writing

  1. Nice post, Anke. A perfect example of this is one that many of you may have heard about. Recently, quite a lot of news articles have been published about UWA’s Matthew Piggott, and his research into MDMA analogues. The first step in determining the medicinal uses of an MDMA analogue is to remove the psychoactivity of the compound ie. it is no longer ecstasy, it won’t get you high. After this, there has been tests performed to investigate the anticancer properties, and potential to treat Parkinson’s and other diseases. These are preliminary results, which suggest that further studies are worthwhile. The media is sensationalizing the issue entirely, but I guess by now everyone is used to hearing “Scientists cure cancer! ….. Maybe”, so hopefully people are taking a grain of salt with the media’s message “Ecstasy cures cancer!…. ish”. It is valuable research, but it is not (yet?) a “cure for cancer”.

  2. You brought a great notion Anke. I also have deep concern about Murdock’s media empire, because he seems levelling down his every media sources into less diverse audience.
    There’s no wonder that some tabloid papers tend to be sensational. but if the TImes got that feature, I’ll definitely say newspapers are dead.

    Sensationalism and accuracy is crucial point, and I have though that print media are tend to be more accuracy oriented media, since they last longer, but it seems changing.

    In my opinion, there must be some kind of confusion among the journalist on paper media.
    When we talking about the change of media as information sources, online media, such as internet coverage tend to be acknowledged as its immediacy. And since newspapers were the most “immediate” information source for long time, they still trying to catch up that feature. As a result, they trying to catch the attention at limited time period, and go to sensationalism. In the case of science, that is the worst choice I think.
    Role of each media is different, and nowadays, people are clever enough to choose information sources for their specific aim.
    Also in my opinion, science journalism is still young, and editor who has scientific background is still rare, especially in the print media. That still making some tragedy (or comedy).

    Well, in modern era, what sort of role is required for science journalists?
    As you mentioned, interpretation is key issue, however I think there are one more crucial viewpoint they must have, which is Social effect. For instance, even if scientists found drastic medicine, if it’s not cost effective, that is just one test case. I’ve seen a lot of coverage that speaks about “ultimate medicine”, but rarely seen the coverage, that mentioned about whether it is costly, handy or suitable for everybody. Actually, It is tough question, and it is quite difficult to estimate the effect of those new technology in initial state.
    but if you have not understood scientific principals,it’s almost impossible.
    If science journalist could not do that, Who else could do that?

    • Kohei,

      Thank you very much for your insightful addition to my blog. I agree that good science journalism probably can be done best by science writers. In the study by Geller et al., the scientists, who participated in the study, also clearly distinguished between science writers and science journalists. Maybe science journalist should not by definition be pointed at as the one more likely to sensationalise, distort and report in an unbalanced manner. But in the past those covering the science in the media unfortunately, most often, were journalist with the right writing and interviewing skills but lacking the science background.
      My hope is that exactly that will change. And we may be able to be part of new science communicators that can make a difference. Exciting and challenging but, in my view, a great opportunity!

      Anke

  3. I think I quite like the idea of editors not being scientists. If they can’t understand it, then it isn’t likely to be understood by a general audience. I am not familiar with the processes involved in science writing or journalism, however maybe some more communication between editor and writer could result in an understandable AND accurate article!

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