Adventures in Ethics and Science

Scientists and journalists.

I’m late to this round of the discussion about scientists and journalists (for which, as usually, Bora compiles a comprehensive list of links). The question that seems to have kicked off this round is why scientists are sometimes reluctant to agree to interviews, especially given how often they express their concern that the larger public seems uninterested in and uninformed about matters scientific.

As I have some interest in this topic, I’m going to add a few thoughts to the pile:

Does reporting on science have a tendency to misrepresent science?

This is a long-standing concern — that, in the process of trying to put together a compelling narrative, the journalist will tend to oversimplify, glossing over uncertainties in results or the difficulties inherent in applying what has been learned about the carefully controlled systems under study to messy systems out there in the world. If you gloss over too much, you leave the audience (of non-scientists) with a pretty misleading picture of how much we know, how we came to know it, and how easily this knowledge can be applied to answering their questions or solving their problems.

Of course, if you put in too much of the detail, maybe the audience just flips straight to the sports page.

Probably scientists — and journalists on the science beat — need to think about communicating science to the larger public as an ongoing process. No one story can do the whole job, but a pattern of stories with the right gloss on the scientific details could help the public understand more. It might also help build their interest and their appetite for more of the details about how the scientific knowledge is built.

Occasionally, there are science writers who get a reputation for clinging to a narrative that they have decided on in advance, before talking to any scientific experts — who seem, indeed, only to quote the experts they’ve interviewed who support their pre-existing thesis, to misquote and even disparage scientists they interview whose research seems to undermine that thesis. To a scientist, this looks an awful lot like drawing your conclusions before you’ve collected any data. It’s a big departure from objectivity (to put it mildly), and scientists don’t trust that sort of science writer at all. To the extent that major news organizations turn a deaf ear to scientists’ complaints about “journalists” of this sort, scientists can’t be blamed for mistrusting the mass media’s commitment to serious science journalism. Good science writers ought to call shenanigans on their colleagues who do this kind of stuff. It’s a matter of making sure the community of science writers is one that the community of scientists has good reason to trust.

Are scientists making too big a deal out of being misquoted?

Let me quote Tara Smith (who is herself quoting, and responding to, Chris Mooney):

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.

Your sense of how probable it is that you’ll be misquoted is connected to the frequencies you have at hand — usually from your own experience (or that of your colleagues). More than that, even if someone points you at a much larger data set that indicates that the overall likelihood of being misquoted is fairly small, that’s small comfort to you in the face of actually being badly misquoted. (To draw on a parallel situation, when the resident who was trying to give my three-month-old a spinal tap — and was failing — told me that his record of successful lumbar punctures was nearly perfect, this information neither stopped my baby from wailing nor stopped me from wanting to punch the resident in the nose.)

Part of the scientists’ sensitivity to the misquoting has to do with getting the right gloss on the scientific details, so that the story does not badly mislead its intended audience. Moreover, it seems scientists really want to do what they can to help the journalists get the right gloss — being able to check the quotations before the final story seems a reasonable mechanism to make sure that story doesn’t spread misinformation.

Yet because of their training, journalists are often pretty resistant to letting scientists provide this kind of help. As Jennifer Ouellette explains:

Policies vary from publication to publication on letting scientists review articles or individual quotes prior to publication. The Industrial Physicist, for which I wrote for 10 years before it shuttered, always extended this courtesy — as a courtesy, mind you, not as a right — but Discover, Salon, and just about any other mainstream media outlet specifically forbid a reporter from doing so. It really is about journalistic integrity. Believe me, politicians would LOVE to be able to review articles or quotes before they appear in print, the better to spin their carefully cultivated public images. Why should scientists get special treatment? Because they can be trusted to be “objective”? I think not. Scientists are human beings, and they have the same vanities, petty jealousies, and less-than-admirable motives as the rest of the human race, which interferes with their best intentions about as often as occurs in the population at large. It’s part of our system of checks and balances that the free press remains just that: free.

Here, part of the problem may come down to a journalistic judgment about what exactly the subject of the story is — the scientist or the science?

If the subject is the scientist, then to the extent that scientists can be like politicians, trying to create a certain sort of reputation for themselves, this policy makes sense. But for stories where the subject is a piece of science, it’s less clear to me that it’s helpful to decide that the journalist’s take on the subject is more trustworthy than the interviewed expert’s take. Of course, the journalist can always get a second opinion from another scientific expert (and can always note parenthetically when the experts conduct themselves like pompous asses). But does it really jeopardize journalistic integrity to double-check whether the words your putting in quotation marks after the expert’s name and institutional affiliation really give a reasonable explanation of a particular bit of science to a lay audience?

If so, how exactly?

The other side of the issue: communications directly from scientists.

I think it would be a mistake to overlook the other factors that make it hard for stories about science for non-scientific audiences to succeed. One of these, obviously, is the current state of scientific literacy in the public at large. Even if we could instantly solve the problems with the educational system (and endow people with longer attention spans), it would take time before the public became a well-prepared and attentive audience for the kind of stories scientists wish journalists on the science beat were all writing every single time.

Another factor, though, is that scientists seem to be trained into patterns of “communication” that leave them ill-equipped to communicate meaningfully with non-scientists about the science they do. This is a problem others have noted, but it’s not a necessary feature of scientific communication. Scientific writing styles in scientist-to-scientist communications in the peer reviewed literature could be brought closer to the plain vernacular. Some technical language is unavoidable, but wildly convoluted sentences are not. If the goal of communication within the tribe of science were clarity, I suspect communication with folks outside that tribe would get clearer, too. Heck, non-scientists might even be able to pick up scientific journals and get the gist of some of the articles published in them.

When there’s a transmission problem, it’s often useful to check not just the receiver, but the transmitter.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    June 21, 2007

    More than that, even if someone points you at a much larger data set that indicates that the overall likelihood of being misquoted is fairly small, that’s small comfort to you in the face of actually being badly misquoted.

    This is a key point that’s missed in a lot of circumstances besides just the two you mention.

    It is true that (for example) the statistics of car vs. plane deaths are the more appropriate thing to consider when deciding the safest mode of travel, but it’s no consolation whatsoever to somebody who’s just died on an airplane. One could come up with several hundred other examples.

    -Rob

  2. #2 Melinda Barton
    June 21, 2007

    I don’t know what J-school some of these people attended (I received my MA in journalism from NYU.), but intentionally misquoting an interview subject and/or having a “story” ahead of time is a blatant violation of journalistic ethics. It should not be tolerated. Misquoting based on laziness, a failure to take proper notes/recordings, etc. is inexcusable sloppiness and calls the integrity of the journalist into question. At some publications, even a single major error (which substantially changes the content/intent of the quote)is grounds for dismissal.

    Although they are correct that publications do not necessarily allow the subject to check the quotes (depending on the circumstances of the article), there is a fact checking process at most reputable publications as well as a policy to print corrections of any errors in keeping with journalistic ethics and first amendment law. These processes are not perfect, just as the processes intended to ensure the ethical practice of science are not perfect. But they do exist and every journalist should be committed to following the standard rules and ethical guidelines designed both to prevent misrepresentation/distortion and to ensure that journalists and the publications they serve maintain the public trust.

  3. #3 Melinda Barton
    June 21, 2007

    One more thing. In news stories, journalists should never make prejudicial statements, parenthetical or otherwise. We merely write that someone said x or stated x. Commentary on the manner in which this is done is deemed too subjective and not fit for a news story. Features, commentary, etc. follow slightly different rules, where the writer is given a bit more leeway in description. However, outright prejudicial statements like “He was acting like a pompous ass.” should be avoided. Of course, as I stated above, journalists in practice sometimes deviate from our basic ethical standards in inexcusable ways.

  4. #4 Michelle
    June 22, 2007

    This is a long-standing concern — that, in the process of trying to put together a compelling narrative, the journalist will tend to oversimplify, glossing over uncertainties in results or the difficulties inherent in applying what has been learned about the carefully controlled systems under study to messy systems out there in the world.

    I can tell you flat-out that in most cases, the journalist has no choice but to “gloss over” some uncertainties, as you put it. If you don’t, your editor will do it for you–especially if you’re writing for a daily, where space is at a particular premium. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve written where I tried to include a mention of some nuance or cautionary statement, and had the editor tell me that it had to go.

    You have to try to look at it this way: if a group of scientists publishes a paper that says they’ve discovered a new treatment for disease X that is Y% more effective than any other treatment in existence, except in case Z, what is the most newsworthy part of that statement? “New treatment,” obviously. Why? because it’s “Y% more effective than any other.” By the time you’ve written your lede, told the readers about this new treatment and explained how it works, you’re out of room. So what gets cut? “Except in case Z.” Happens almost every time. I’m not defending it; that’s just what happens.

    You also pointed out that if you include too many details, “maybe the audience just flips straight to the sports page.” That can happen. Generally speaking, if the story gets too complicated, people will just give up on it.

    The unfortunate trade-offs of trying to inform without causing information overload… always fun.

  5. #5 BARRY MORSE
    June 22, 2007

    Please visit my free website http://www.theeasyessay.com .This program has been taught to 7 years olds, LD students, as a college class (and as a prep for SAT, ACT) and been used for business, technical and scientific reports, as well as for rehabilitative education; please, see below.

    It takes less than 5 minutes to learn and can be taught to a varied group of students at the same time and each will learn to his or her own unique capacity.

    For the technologically inclined, http://www.theeasyessay.com is an automated information organization program linked to an information retrieval system.

    But I promise it is easy.

    THE EASY ESSAY
    An Automated Information Organization Program

    In most conversations, the majority of time is spent with one person telling the other person why something is true; that is, giving reasons for its validity. This simple concept is the basis for the automated information organization program at the heart of http://www.theeasyessay.com , except that you do it in writing. That is all that we ask you to do on this site; just give reasons why what you have already stated as a fact is true. We use the essay form because it is the most efficient form of organization available and we automate this organization to limit your supporting statements to proving only the accuracy of your original assertion.

    This FREE website makes essay writing easy enough for a seven year old to learn (but has also been taught at the college level) and has the capability of being used as a template for business (including inter office communications), technical or scientific reports. It has also been taught to learning disabled students and may have applications in educational rehabilitation. Due to the simplicity of the process and the fact that the automated program keeps your focus on your original idea, The Easy Essay is perfect for oral presentations, essay exams or use in the SAT, ACT, etc. as the process can be easily replicated without the use of a computer. The program also has a feature which allows the user to expand the basic five paragraph essay to a longer seventeen paragraph paper. The process remains the same; the only thing that changes is the amount of detail you choose to use.

    The program takes less than five minutes to learn. So, scan the demo, go to compose, try it and see what it does. You will like it.

    http://www.theeasyessay.com users say this program is the next step in Google® because rather than just locating a fact, it uses a direct link to Google ® to provide the user with the information needed to prove the basic premise and organizes that information in a logical, almost mathematic formula and therefore can be used in any language.

    Teachers report that an amazing side effect of using the program is that students start to speak and think more logically.

    We at The Easy Essay Inc. believe that by popularizing the PC, Bill Gates gave the world the means to communicate and that http://www.theeasyessay.com is the method. We also firmly believe that this is too important to charge for.

    Please forward this to anywhere it can help. Any feedback will be greatly appreciated.

    For more information contact Barry Morse through the “Contact Us” section of the website.

    * Google® is a registered trademark of Google® Inc. The Easy Essay Inc. is not associated with Google®, but we would love to be.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.