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What’s Wrong With News Reporting of Science?

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting

In his blog hosted by the UK newspaper, The Guardian, Martin Robbins recently published an excellent pair of articles that highlights everything that’s wrong with the reporting of science on internet news sites (especially the BBC). The first of the two articles is a scything spoof entitled “This is a news website article about a scientific paper“, which opens like this:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

…and continues on to deconstruct the template that is routinely used by science journalists. In itself, this is a funny, insightful and actually pretty educational read. But in the follow up article, “Why I spoofed science journalism, and how to fix it“. Robbins explains why he wrote the first article, what he thinks is wrong with science journalism and what he thinks can be done about it.

Since we all need to be concerned about how science is reported to, and perceived by, the public this is well worth a read.

Some of his most salient criticisms are:

1. Constrictions on Science Journalists are strangling the scientific information

Robbins argues that fear of voicing an opinion, the necessity to read as wide an audience as possible in order to maximise revenues and arcane (and unnecessary) word limits on online articles are dumbing down and stifling the conversation to a point where the original science is unrecognisable.

2. The compulsion to say “This is IT” is distorting the reality of how scientific consensus/knowledge is built

Each paper contributes to science’s stream of consciousness and together they help to build a consensus. Only on very rare occasions are individual papers ground-breaking. But the media are compelled to single out individual papers as the paper that is going to change everything. My personal favourite is the “Scientists have identified the gene for (insert heritable disease here)” format that is routinely trotted out. The journalist generally goes on to imply that, having discovered the gene, we are tantalisingly close to a treatment, which is of course rubbish. More irritatingly, the corresponding author of THE paper, flushed with pride at having made the mass media, rarely puts the journalist right. And the circle is complete.

3. Current circumstances mean that the original paper is generally not linked to

Often, journals will release a preview copy of an interesting paper to journalists so that they can write the review ahead of publication. But this means that the news report can’t link to the original article. Newspapers also won’t link if the article is not open access. So there’s no easy access to the original article, and the the newspaper report becomes The Unchallenged Word, at least in the layperson’s mind.

Robbins then goes on to say how he thinks publications should address these, and the other problems he listed. Do take a look at the original articles to see his full thoughts and proposed solutions. And of course let us know what you think by leaving a comment here.

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

Why I spoofed science journalism, and how to fix it

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