What if There Were Rules for Science Journalism?

I’ve often complained about the role of the media in perpetuating misunderstandings about the nature of science and promoting pseudoscience. Journalists rarely have training in science, and those who do have the training and expertise to cover science stories accurately are finding it harder and harder to get jobs. As Carl Sagan famously said, ” We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster.” Yet once we leave school, somewhere in our teens or twenties for most of us, the media is really the only source of information about science and technology most of us have. If the media cannot report on science issues accurately, is it any wonder ignorance and misunderstanding of science is so widespread.

I recently read an article by Fiona Fox, CEO of the Science Media Centre, which is an information and resource center for journalists and scientists focused on improving the accuracy of science journalism.

What if There Were Rules for Science Journalism?

The article was originally published in New Scientist magazine and appeared today on Slate.com. Ms. Fox begins  by illustrating the seriousness of the problem with an example all too familiar to proponents of science based medicine–the bogus link between childhood vaccination and autism.

When the press gets it wrong on science, the results can be devastating. The furor over MMR, which started in 1998 after a rogue doctor claimed a link between the vaccine and autism, is the best-known example of how poor reporting can cause harm. Vaccination rates dropped to 80 percent, and cases of measles in England and Wales rose from 56 in 1998 to 1,370 in 2008.

The media were not solely responsible for the MMR scare, but some of the news values that caused the problem are alive and well: the appetite for a great scare story; the desire to overstate a claim made by one expert in a single small study; the reluctance to put one alarming piece of research into its wider, more revealing context; journalistic “balance”—which creates the impression of a significant divide in scientific opinion where there is none; the love of the maverick; and so on.

All of the problems she lists are common in media coverage of alternative medicine as well. An impression of scientific legitimacy can easily be manufactured through “false balance” and an exaggeration of the evidentiary value of low-quality evidence. And the love of a heartwarming narrative, including mavericks proven right and miracle cures, lead people to accept pseudoscientific ideas despite the scientific and  rational reasons to reject them.

Ms. Fox then goes on to provide a sample of a checklist of guideline that journalists could use to avoid misleading the public when reporting on scientific issues: 

  • Every story on new research should include the sample size and highlight where it may be too small to draw general conclusions.
  • Any increase in risk should be reported in absolute terms as well as percentages: For example, a “50 percent increase” in risk or a “doubling” of risk could merely mean an increase from 1 in 1,000 to 1.5 or 2 in 1,000
  • A story about medical research should provide a realistic time frame for the work’s translation into a treatment or cure.
  • [Such stories] should emphasize what stage findings are at: If it is a small study in mice, it is just the beginning; if it’s a huge clinical trial involving thousands of people, it is more significant.
  • Stories about shocking findings should include the wider context: The first study to find something unusual is inevitably very preliminary; the 50th study to show the same thing may be justifiably alarming
  • Articles should mention where the story has come from: a conference lecture, an interview with a scientist, or a study in a peer-reviewed journal, for example.

As a member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists (ASVJ), I am interested in encouraging the most accurate media coverage of veterinary medical issues. As usual, this effort in the veterinary field is smaller and less fully developed than similar efforts in the human medical domain, but the problems and the goals are much the same. The better our clients understand the science underlying our recommendations, including the inevitable degree of uncertainty involved in any scientific endeavor, the better they will be able to work with veterinarians as partners to manage the health and well-being of their pets. And the more clearly people comprehend both the strengths and limitations of scientific evidence, the more difficult it will be to sell them pseudoscience and nonsense.

The media plays a key role in interpreting and disseminating scientific information, and the sort of guidelines Ms. Fox is suggesting would be a great step towards improving the quality of science journalism. I would very much like to see organizations such as the ASVJ and the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association (EBVMA) involved in developing and promoting such standards for the general press.

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8 Responses to What if There Were Rules for Science Journalism?

  1. Tomcat says:

    Excellent blog! Thank you so much for sharing both the article and your thoughts on it. I think one of the main points that needs to be addressed is how to prevent a sensational-driven media from reporting on issues that may not have full proof or merit. In an ever-shrinking news cycle and increased competition to get the scoop first, I wonder how media outlets will react to this sort of thought.

  2. skeptvet says:

    Thanks, Tom! Yes, the priorities of the news business and science are quite different. News is about providing rapid, digestible, entertaining content. Science is about methodically developing an understanding with known levels of uncertainty that are acceptted as inevitable. It takes a particular talent to blend the two and be true to the nature of both beasts. Hopefully, organizations like the Science Media Centre and the ASVJ can help journalists and scientists communicate more effectively.

  3. Greg Laden says:

    I have the impression that there were more rules, in a sense, for journalism generally in the past than there are now. Or, as has been suggested, that the rules have chained in a way that has ruined journalism (other than for its entertainment value).

    Shawn Otto does a good job of examining this question in his book “Fool Me Twice”

  4. Janet Camp says:

    I’d like to mention the work of Chicago Tribune science reporter Trine Tseuderos, who actually does have a significant science background, which has done much to set a good example and should become the standard. She is a delightful speaker as well who approaches her work with humor as well as intelligence.

  5. skeptvet says:

    Yes, I’ve been following her recent series on the NCCAM, and I’ve been very impressed!

  6. Janet Camp says:

    I have had some exchanges with NY Times reporters about the false equivalency issue and while I have to say that they were willing to discuss it and treated me respectfully, in the end they stuck to the idea that if there is even one “dissenter”, he/she deserves to be heard–because, “what if he turns out to be right?” Groaaannnnn. It’s that Galileo argument that I forget the name of!

    p.s. I’m glad to hear you are aware of and following Ms. Tseuderos’ work–I kind of thought you might as I’m pretty sure you read SBM.

  7. Great blog! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Ryan Gates says:

    Great post. It has long been a major complaint of mine that the public is woefully educated in the world of science. No, we don’t need a bunch of Eidsons and Einsteins running around, but the world would be better off of more people knew how to think critically about issues at hand and current events. Instead, we live in a knee-jerk, 24/7-news-cycle world where sensationalism rules the day. I fear that even if a whole mass of writers takes it upon themselves to write in a scientifically ethical manner, the bulk of the reading public won’t have the patience to consider what it is they’re reading in the first place.

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