Interesting article about science journalism

This article assumes that most journalists are qualified to read and understand studies and other primary sources. They’re not. The journalism major is about breadth over depth, so while journalism majors have to take three science classes like everyone else, they have to take one class in each of three different sciences, and there is no incentive to take the regular lab science; most of my classmates were too happy to wait until they could get into the easier Rocks for Jocks or Physics for Poets classes.

Furthermore, “science” and “health” journalists are often pulled from other assignments because it’s good for business to cover interesting stories, both in terms of readership and in terms of advertising revenue. These reporters generally don’t have any special training or qualifications in science or medicine, so they have very little understanding of what they’re covering. (There are some exceptions, but not enough.) There’s also this rather fucked-up idea of “balance” and “objectivity”, which is how we end up with lousy stories like the anti-vax and climate-change nonsense.

Balance is not giving equal time to “both sides.” Balance is attention proportional to evidence.

For a short time in my life, when my graduate work was not going well (I was a physics Ph.D. student), I was contemplating becoming a science writer. At least I would have understood the field. But then things got better and I finished my degree.

Now I’m a software develper, of all things.

My boss used to be a radio journalist in another life. Then she became a programmer, and then a software project manager.

Bah. A lot of times there is no link to a primary source. Here’s how it works.

Reporter gets a tip/news release/summary from the researcher or academic institution about an exciting new study that promises an end to athlete’s foot.

Reporter rewrites the tip, or if really ambitious, calls the researcher for information. Researcher offers to send reporter a copy of the paper, noting it will be published in the Journal of Foot Science.

Reporter goes to Journal’s site and discovers that it’s subscription only. Nothing irritates a reader more than clicking on a link and being told you have to subscribe. You know, the Internet is supposed to be free and all that.

That’s the funniest thing that I’ve read in months. Windmills cause beached whales. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

It reminds me why I love Ben Goldacre. I think this is his funniest column.

The mission of journalism is not only to find primary information but to convert that raw material into readable stories that concisely, accurately and fairly convey the important facts in a meaningful context. That doesn’t mean throwing every possible fact at the reader. Often the excision of extraneous or possibly misleading bits is as important as the composition of the central thread of the story.

As a category, journalists covering science stories are not particularly good at this. For readers who understand the science behind the story and have other sources on it, it may be easier to tell exactly where and how they’ve gone wrong, compared to political or other kinds of stories where there may be no way to get at the facts except through news coverage. I don’t think that means writers on science topics should necessarily give readers piles of links in every story and expect them to check it out. Most readers can’t or won’t do this, and personally even if I could and would in some cases, I don’t have the time to do it for everything I read.

No, I want journalists to do their jobs. The solution to bad science journalism is primarily to teach journalists how to understand and cover science better. Here’s one program dedicated to doing just that.

The Science News Cycle

You know that, and I know that, but your average editor (and reporter) doesn’t know that. Balance basically comes down to giving equal time to both sides.

I found a lulu. The headline of the story was that women who drink coffee tend suffer fewer strokes. The study actually said that women who don’t drink coffee tend to have more strokes. The former implies a causal relationship that doesn’t really exist, while the latter is more accurate. This was a medical website, which you’d think would understand the difference. (I’d link to it, but you have to register for the site.)

The journalist’s job is to write stories that sell newsprint (or web hits these days). Real scientific information is usually dull and inconclusive. If it’s about science, and appears in the popular press, it’s almost alway wrong. That could be said of any story, but with science it leans towards getting the point completely reversed.