I’ve posted about some of the issues associated with science journalism, like created controversies and the disconnect between scientists’ and non-scientists’ concepts and views of “uncertainty,” and over the weekend, Slate Magazine reposted an article from the New Scientist that delved more deeply into some of the problems facing science journalism. They ask the same question that’s been tossing around my noggin: is science journalism different from news journalism and should science journalism have a special set of rules?
I am a scientist and not a journalist. My instinct tells me that science journalism is not that different from news journalism ““ in both cases, the journalist has a responsibility to present a complete picture. And just as an unethical news journalist may present biased information or create a controversy, the same may happen with unethical science journalists. I do not want to let journalists off the hook ““ there should be substantial pressure to write strong, truthful, and unbiased pieces ““ but the general relationship between society and science adds to the issues facing science journalism.
Science is generally presented as this big, complex, “hard” thing, in a way that understanding current events isn’t. So in general, most consumers of news have much better functional news literacy than science literacy. Thus, when news articles include some bias or misinformation, it’s easier to put those news articles in the appropriate context. Due to the lack of science literacy, the same is not true for science journalism. That’s why when science controversies are created, such as the ones about evolution or the link between vaccination and autism, it is more difficult to recognize the limitations of the science and to place the study in the appropriate context.
So while the New Scientist article argues for putting more information about the study, like sample size and the real effects found, I think that a more useful strategy would be to teach science literacy in classrooms. Maybe my experience is atypical, but in elementary school, we had to watch mini-news summary segments and take quizzes about current events. There was no similar program for science news, even though such a program would be helpful. In addition to helping people become more informed consumers of information, it’d go a long way in making science seems less distant and intimidating. No one just knows how to understand and contextualize the news ““ it takes a lot of practice and learning ““ and yet people are expected to know how to understand and contextualize the science news.
What do you think? Should science journalists be held to a different standard than news journalists? Is there a difference between the two? What should be done?