Pharyngula

Help a local reporter today

I admit it, I’m often very harsh and critical of science reporting — it’s important stuff, so it’s infuriating to see it done badly. Rather than my usual angry growl, though, I’ll recommend this first-rate collection of constructive suggestions for what we can do to improve the media.

Comments

  1. #1 Cat's Staff
    October 16, 2007

    How about if we lock up Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton (and her little dog too) for good…so that reporters have time to take on real news issues… that might help science reporting.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    October 16, 2007

    Start with the basics: All Science reporters should know the difference between science and woo, and react accordingly.

  3. #3 caynazzo
    October 16, 2007

    Whatever
    Most scientists don’t know the difference between science and woo outside their own hyper-specialized field of research. Now consider the different levels and types of education between reporters and scientists.

  4. #4 Tom Levenson
    October 16, 2007

    As a practicing science writer/film maker, and a faculty sort at a big research university, a) Mashey is right on; b) scientists underestimate how difficult it is to do science writing well and hence c) lots of folks think that J-Dog’s comment gets to the heart of the problem. It doesn’t — its an easy dig, but almost completely off the point.

    That there are bad science reporters is a given and worse, good science writers can do bad work — you should have been there when my seven grad students in science writing dissected a recent, very prominent NYTimes reporter’s piece on an evolutionary psych theme. It wasn’t pretty, and the pity of it was that the piece was by someone who has been very good in the past. I have no idea what that specific problem was for the writer — but the fact is that even a relatively specialized writer has to cover a much broader territory than any practicing scientist actually pursues in their own work. Mistakes will happen.

    Malice is real too — I have my list of writers whose pieces I always check before I believe.

    But it’s too easy, and a cop out, to say that this is not a problem for science and scientists. The best of the proactive points Mashey made are, imho, to remember the fact of deadlines, and (extending my own views into what I read in his post) to be interventionist, almost turning around the interview, if there is a point you want to make sure the reporter understands. Most reporters will ask if there is anything else they should have asked, or if there is anything else the interviewee wants to say. Take that opportunity to drive your point of view home.

    For those that want to see how these issues look from the writer/reporter’s point of view, you could do worse than look at the National Association of Science Writer’s “A Field Guide for Science Writers, 2nd ed.” edited by three first rate practitioners: Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig. Also, the fall, 2002 Nieman Reports from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism devoted the entire issue to science journalism, and its contributors are again, a pretty good cross section of the upper echelon of science journalism. Walk a mile in the other’s shoes, folks.

  5. #5 caynazzo
    October 16, 2007

    Mary Knudson was my instructor for a science and medical writing class I took at Johns Hopkins. She’s currently working on an interesting project involving graduate science writers shadowing Doctors while on rounds at Hopkins Hospital. Oh yeah, “A Field Guide” was required reading for the class.

  6. #6 Cyrus
    October 16, 2007

    R2. Reporters are busy, and they have deadlines. They usually cannot devote years of study to some topic, especially a complex one, they are barraged with disinformation, and have a lot of pressure towards “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand”, as well as pressure for short-term news.

    Yes, please. I’m a reporter, and my paper is too small and locally-focused to piss off too many scientists, but I see a lot of attitudes like this in other fields and from people in general. (Sometimes for good reason, of course, but sometimes not.) What, you want me to call you back by tomorrow? You’re publishing the story without even talking to my boss? (Well, if he won’t call me back…) You’re writing about logging, but you’ve never even been a logger? (I swear someone has complained about that to me before.)

    I also liked R4, because it has resulted in me getting good stories sometimes. As a twice-weekly paper, we rarely get to break news above the local level, but sometimes a follow-up story on something already covered can be very meaningful. Once, another paper wrote an article which was misleading, especially in the headline. This made the department head who was quoted in the article thrilled to talk to me, both because I wasn’t from that paper and to set the record straight.

  7. #7 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 16, 2007

    Sorry, someone has to say it: framing doesn’t seem to be a constructive suggestion.

    A very reasonable list of action items, even if 5 items per category is a bit much and makes for a (missing) prioritizing.

    The other small complaint I have is that Mashey assumes all (science) reporters and editors familiar with science as having methods for establishing facts and avoiding much of “on one side, on the other side” in verified cases. I doubt that it is that simple, he himself mentions a reporter recently transfered from a Cooking section. (Okay, maybe we can agree on water cooking temperature at sea level. But ask PZ’s family for each persons favorite recipe on squid.)

  8. #8 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 16, 2007

    Sorry, someone has to say it: framing doesn’t seem to be a constructive suggestion.

    A very reasonable list of action items, even if 5 items per category is a bit much and makes for a (missing) prioritizing.

    The other small complaint I have is that Mashey assumes all (science) reporters and editors familiar with science as having methods for establishing facts and avoiding much of “on one side, on the other side” in verified cases. I doubt that it is that simple, he himself mentions a reporter recently transfered from a Cooking section. (Okay, maybe we can agree on water cooking temperature at sea level. But ask PZ’s family for each persons favorite recipe on squid.)