In addition to comments by Mike, Jennifer, and Astroprof, Chris Mooney added his thoughts to the scientist-journalist communication discussion in a post here–so perhaps a few more journalists will pop out of the woodwork there and elaborate.

I see a common theme here. Scientists have often had issues with misquotation, and it tends to sour them on science journalists. Journalists know that misquotation is bound to happen now and then, and it bothers them less. Chris notes:

I also second Jennifer Ouellette that sometimes scientists get too miffed about being misquoted. Don’t get me wrong: Misquoting sucks. Good journalists, and I hope I’m one, use tape recorders whenever possible to try to avoid this. Nevertheless, and although there are certainly major exceptions, when misquotation occurs the consequences are rarely very large. …The more you’re in journalism, the more you realize that life just goes on, and it is the rare case indeed in which a misquotation seriously impacts someone’s career. And more generally, the idea that all journalists should be punished for one journalist’s error…well, that’s just unfair.

I agree it’s unfair, but look at it from the scientist’s point of view. Unless you’re a very big fish, you’re unlikely to get interviewed all that frequently. Therefore, when it does happen, it’s a bigger deal to the scientist (who may be interviewed a few times a year) than to the journalist (who may do dozens of interviews a month, if they’re working for a busy daily paper). Maybe the more one is in journalism, they’re more likely to realize that misquotes just happen, but *scientists usually aren’t journalists.* One misquote is a big deal, whether or not it has a long-lasting detrimental effect on one’s career or not. If you’ve been burned once already, and each interview is a chance to get burned again, I can definitely see why people think, “why bother?,” especially when journalists themselves accept that occasional misquotations are an inevitable part of journalism.

Comments

  1. #1 James Hrynyshyn
    June 19, 2007

    Here’s a good reason why most scientists should talk to journalists: they’re ethically obliged to answer to their funders.

    Not all, but a huge slice, of the scientific community receives some, if not all, of their funding from public finances. I suggest that if even a tiny portion of your research funding comes from taxpayers’ pockets, then you have a responsibility to engage in explaining your work to the public.

    Not every time a journalist comes calling should you drop everything for an interview, mind you. You have the right to refuse those journalists who have demonstrated they incapable of getting the story (mostly) right, or those who represent an outlet that has a record of bias. But every now and then.

    Your reporting obligation to the government agency that writes the checks is all very well and good, but it doesn’t let you off the hook for doing the odd interview. Scientists not willing to engage the people should not accept funding from the people.

    That said, you aren’t obliged to do so much media that it cuts into your private life. It’s not an either/or world. Find some balance. Take some media training if you’re uncomfortable. Get to know some good journalists. We aren’t all parasitic goofballs.

  2. #2 Larry Moran
    June 19, 2007

    The top three requirements for good science writing are:

    1. Accuracy
    2. Accuracy
    3. Accuracy

    There are very few science writers who meet those requirements in spite of what Chris Mooney says. Misquoting is only one example of inaccuracy.

  3. #3 Chris Mooney
    June 19, 2007

    Tara,

    I agree, it can be hard for scientists…but misquoting is rarely the product of malice. It’s usually just because journalists are stretched too thin. If scientists had to write with similar deadlines…

    I agree with James completely about moral obligation if one receives taxpayer funding.

    As for Larry–if he doesn’t like, on balance, the work of the most specialized journalists that there are…what can I say. Journalism is never going to be perfect, folks. And everybody’s favorite pasttime is to gang up on the media. They get it from all sides, all the time. Most of them are doing the best they can.

    As for the folks running the massive news corporations to serve the bottom line…that’s another issue.

  4. #4 Brian
    June 19, 2007

    “And everybody’s favorite pasttime is to gang up on the media. They get it from all sides, all the time. Most of them are doing the best they can.”

    Is it a pastime or is it the duty of the public to demand the best information possible? Shouldn’t the public hold their press accountable for our system to work? They SHOULD be getting it from all sides all the time. Isn’t this what it’s all about?

    I don’t doubt most are working hard, and most are overworked…and, sure, that’s not ideal. And i’m sure a lot of the flak (sp?) they get is a waste of time. But none of this should not hinder an informed citizenry from demanding the best from their press.

  5. #5 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
    June 19, 2007

    I have to say that my worst experiences with reporters have been with non-science reporters. One was with a media reporter from a national public radio program with a particular axe to grind; the other was a newspaper reporter from a small town paper who managed to mangle just about every fact. To her credit, the latter did print corrections when informed; the former, however, not so much…

    I have to say that most of my experiences with science reporters have been positive. They might not always emphasize the elements of the interview that I would, but they respect the science.

    I agree that we owe it to the public to talk to reporters, although I DEFINITELY agree that conferences can be among the worst times for this. (After all, these are one of the few occassions when there are people around who actually care about the nitty-gritty details of our work.)

    One final thing that I want to add: if you are asked to talk to a reporter, remember that it is a chance to get YOUR ideas and concepts out. If you turn them down, then you lose an opportunity to have your public say.

  6. #6 wheatdogg
    June 20, 2007

    I’m going to weigh in here as someone who has worked both sides of the fence. Before I became a high school physics teacher, I was a daily newspaper reporter, so I have some experience (8 years to be exact) dealing with difficulties of interviewing people.

    As we bloggers know already, writing — good writing — is hard work. We have the luxury of setting our own deadlines, subjects and directions. We can work in our underwear, at home, with comparatively little distraction.

    Not so the daily reporter. He or she is not an expert, necessarily. He/she needs to generate a readable, interesting, factual and hopefully accurate article by a certain time, come hell or high water, or face the wrath of the editors. (Think Jameson from Spiderman here, not White from Superman.) Multiply that process by two or three (or more), since most reporters on dailies have to write more than one article at a time.

    It is incredibly difficult to boil down a complex subject, be it world politics, global warming, or some new biogenetic discovery, into a readable and interesting article of no more than 750 words. The writer, furthermore, has to write the article as close to pyramid style as possible — the important stuff first, details later — since 90% of readers never get past the first three or four short paragraphs. (That’s why Gannett’s USA Today has short articles. They are the print version of “soundbites.”)

    Somewhere in that process, the reporter needs to gather up some quotes from experts, witnesses, authorities, etc., who may or may not be (1) clear (2) interesting (3) cogent or (4) relevant. Some reporters back up their written notes with voice recordings, from which they can transcribe quotes, but that process is time-consuming. For really sensitve stories, where questions of libel might ensue, double-checking quotes is mandatory. For less sensitive articles, the quote checking may be omitted for reasons of time. The reporter relies on his/her notes and memory. Some industrious types will call the subject back to verify the wording of the quote, but time might not allow it.

    Now these remarks have centered around print journalism. The situation for broadcast journalism is far worse, since few news stories, even major ones, lasts longer than 60 seconds on the typical commercial news program. A subject would be lucky to get two sentences out onto the air.

    What’s a scientist to do? Try to boil your statements down to the equivalent of the “idiot’s guide to yadayadaya.” Ask the reporter if she/he understands what you have said. Treat the reporter like one of your students. And if you are really concerned that you might be misquoted, call the reporter at work before his/her deadline and ask if he/she will read back the quotes being used.

    Reporters will never read the entire story back to you, but all will cooperate in making sure they have their quotes and facts correct. After all, their reputation is as much on the line as yours.

  7. #7 Christine Gorman
    June 20, 2007

    Coming from the journalists’ side, I’d have to say that most of my dealings with scientists have been quite cordial and mutually beneficial. But perhaps that’s because I deal primarily with clinicians, who are typically used to talking in ordinary language to their patients!!

    I think science blogs, like Aetiology, have actually helped a lot in this regard. They’re training researchers to adopt a conversational tone on a variety of topics.

    Misquotes are bad, of course, and should be avoided. But I’ve recently noticed an even more troubling trend: no quotes at all. Journalists will use the ideas that come up in their interviews and not attribute them to anyone but themselves. It’s part of the new push for edgier, more opinionated reporting–in response, naturally, to the more highly opinionated nature of the blogosphere.

  8. #8 Larry Moran
    June 20, 2007

    Chris Mooney says,

    As for Larry–if he doesn’t like, on balance, the work of the most specialized journalists that there are…what can I say.

    One thing you could start with is dropping the silly rhetoric. There are plenty of specialized journalists out there. Some concentrate on law, some on business, some on ballet, some on movie stars, and other will only write about inside-the-beltway politics. Science journalists are not the most specialized journalists. A good many of them are rank amateurs when it comes to science.

    Journalism is never going to be perfect, folks. And everybody’s favorite pasttime is to gang up on the media. They get it from all sides, all the time.

    This discussion was greatly stimulated when two people, a journalist and a communications expert, began writing articles and making speeches where they criticized scientists for their lack of communication skills.

    As far as I know, there weren’t many scientists who tried to dismiss this criticism by saying that scientists aren’t perfect and everyone’s favorite pastime is science bashing. Instead, they tried, for the most part, to debate your accusations. Some of them made some serious points (which have mostly been ignored).

    It’s a legitimate part of the discussion to ask whether science journalists have been doing a better job and have earned the right to criticize scientists for not properly explaining science to the general public. You can try and dismiss the criticisms of science writing by falling back on the journalist-as-victim frame if you want, but most of us will see through it.

    As a good science writer, you are in a position to make a difference by speaking out against the poor quality of a lot of science writing. As a matter of fact, I think you could be much more successful in that role than in your current role of criticizing scientists for being poor writers. Are you familiar with the term tu quoque? It may not apply to you personally but it does apply to your profession.

  9. #9 Mark Buchanan
    June 20, 2007

    Christine Gorman made the worrying observation that

    “Journalists will use the ideas that come up in their interviews and not attribute them to anyone but themselves. It’s part of the new push for edgier, more opinionated reporting–in response, naturally, to the more highly opinionated nature of the blogosphere.”

    I’m afraid she’s right. Of course, this is nothing but intellectual dishonesty, which violates accepted standards of journalism, as well as of science, as well as just about anything else (except marketing or advertising… or selling newspapers, I suppose).

    One observation I might make is that time pressures must put practicing journalists, especially those without scientific training, in a very difficult position. Good science journalism cannot follow merely from accepting the claims made in press releases, or even from just talking with scientists to get their views, but has to involve the exercise of the journalist’s independent judgment. Good science writing, in my opinion, requires the writer to act as a kind of referee for the work in question, bringing all they know to the table, questioning whether claims really make sense, what loopholes there might be, alternative explanations and so on. Even if such points can’t be answered, they can at least be raised, so readers come away with a fuller and more balanced view of the work in question.

    However, all that takes time, and journalists, especially for daily newspapers, do not have that in large amounts. It is an inherently hazardous undertaking to attempt to be thorough, and quick, while ranging over the breadth of human knowledge, with accuracy — and writing it all up in an entertaining way.

  10. #10 Dennis
    June 21, 2007

    “Here’s a good reason why most scientists should talk to journalists: they’re ethically obliged to answer to their funders.”

    I don’t know how compelling of an argument that is. The main argument put forth by those who are unenthusiastic about speaking with journalists are that the journalists will misrepresent their work. If this is the case, talking to journalists will not only not help the public learn about what their money is used for but will actually mislead the public. If those scientists cared about informing the public a better option would be to try to get their papers published in one of the few open access journals. Certainly fewer people will be able to understand what is going on, but at least no one will be given inaccurate information.

    I have not had any dealings with science journalism myself, but merely mean to state that this argument avoids the true issue of how accurate the works of science journalists are.

  11. #11 Ed Darrell
    June 22, 2007

    Reporters will never read the entire story back to you, but all will cooperate in making sure they have their quotes and facts correct. After all, their reputation is as much on the line as yours.

    When I reported, I found it quite useful to read the whole story back to sources, if I had the story finished. In investigative pieces, it was sometimes the best thing to happen. Sources don’t complain about one quote in context — they see what’s happening. And, more critically, they tend to start looking for how to make the story better (most sources haven’t figured spin, from inexperience). So they make constructive suggestions.

    And when I was on the other side, flacking stories, I found the best reporters often made those last second checks. During certain crises I learned to sit by the phone after 5:00 p.m. Eastern to wait for Rita Braver’s call checking one last thing (when she was still producing). When the stakes were really high, it wasn’t Rita, it was Walter — sometimes during commercials.

    I also learned from the flacking side that sources need to make it easy for reporters to get the story right. Complex stories (evolution, for example) are prime for a Q&A piece from your source that print reporters can quote from freely, and broadcasters can use for background. We went so far as to put some on tape so they could be “quoted” in broadcast. It seems like a lot of work, but if you’re in it for a long haul, it’s less work. 82 years after Scopes, we’d better figure out that we’re in it for the long haul.

    Also, once someone’s views are published a fair amount, it’s unlikely one reporter will screw it up. The editors may have seen the story from the competition, and they’ll want to know why the reporter seems to have a different view (this especially applies to financial reporters).

    So the answer to the misquoted problem is simple: Scientists need to invite more reporters into their labs, more often, to show them what’s going on. Develop a relationship with the reporters and editors, and the publication/station, so that if a story comes up in that general topic, they’ll turn to their source first for comment.

    Both reporters and scientists are human. This is just basic psychology, isn’t it?

  12. #12 wheatdogg
    June 22, 2007

    My editors would have hung me out to dry if I had read a story before its publication to anyone, much less someone featured in the story itself. Of course, that was more than 20 years ago. Maybe editors have loosened up since.