Getting Meta: Thinking about Science Journalism

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?

3 replies on “Getting Meta: Thinking about Science Journalism”

Surely that should be the non-existent link between vaccination and autism?:)

Different standards, no, but standards, yes. In the same way that a political journalist should know e.g.: all the ways laws get made in their country, the history and operations of political parties, the people who make up the cabinet, etc.;  and a business journalist should know economics and finance; a science journalist should have scientific literacy. If you’re writing about health and science, you should know what you’re talking about.

Scientific literacy should be taught in schools anyway, of course.

Should science journalists and news journalists be held to different standards? Probably not. Will they be? Almost definitely. If for no other reason than ‘journalists’ like those at Fox breed distrust of legitimate science in the name of fear-mongering.

I’m a scientist (fishery ecologist dealing with climate change and catastrophic floods in river landscapes – or that’s roughly what my dissertation will be in a couple years). I’ve written peer-reviewed articles and I’ve written lay pieces. The problem I often find is that people who are doing the science and writing the technical articles are terrible communicators outside of the technical science-y realm. I’ve heard colleagues give talks that start off one way but then have to add endless qualifiers or explanations because they’ve forgotten how to talk like normal human beings. I’m in a very interdisciplinary based PhD program and some of my classmates that are in more qualitative or education fields call me out on using science-speak. Sometimes I just have to remind myself: it’s like talking to Grandma (and my Grandma is a ridiculously smart woman, but she has no idea what I do except that I walk around in rivers a lot and catch fish- I am slightly better than a longshoreman).

But back to the main point- science journalism is different. With science you have to kind of work to the lowest (or lower) common denominator, and with today’s science literacy in schools that’s not giving people a whole lot. Scientists come to the table with a lot of assumptions, like that people are reasonable or can think critically when shown science that isn’t right (i.e. vaccines and autism). But people aren’t generally taught to think critically in schools anymore, either, but that’s a whole other problem. What I’ve come to find works best with a wide range of groups is to visualize information. No one doesn’t like maps or graphs, especially ones with bright colors, not too confusing or busy, that are fairly easy to figure out, and lets them figure it out on their own. People will look at visualizations a lot longer than they’ll take to read a paragraph and likely get more information out of it. I’m also a very visually-oriented learner and have a lot more fun making graphs than I do writing articles…

For me being a journalist entails a few things:
– use the RIGHT sources, be able to defend them and never tweak them to your liking
– be independent from sponsors (or be allowed to show you are dependent from sponsors)
– don’t underestimate your readers

Besides that it shouldn’t matter what kind of journalist you are.

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