Terra Sigillata

To begin, I’m not necessarily saying these are attitudes of journalists but perhaps may be of some editors and media business decision makers.

This post was stimulated by an interesting comment thread is developing over at The White Coat Underground – a fine blog written by practicing internist colleague, PalMD. Pal wrote a short post on one of his pet peeves: the lack of journal citations in mainstream media articles of recent science and medicine stories.

On one hand, the space taken by such a citation in print would be perhaps a line or two more than the text, “Researchers at Highfalutin University…” But in online editions, where space is endless, would simply require a hyperlink to the original publication.

A reader named Joanne who is apparently in the journalism industry wrote back to PalMD and commenters here, here, and here (< those are cost-free hyperlinks to the original content) where she suggested that the average reader doesn't care about the original story, the idea wouldn't fly, is "ill-advised from a business standpoint," and that those of us who are interested in original sources should just use PubMed and the author names.

Now, I will admit that I have never been at an editorial meeting of a major market news organization. But I fail to see how adding another couple of lines in print is going to harm circulation and advertising revenue.

For example, newspapers have increasingly added to the end of long-form articles a list of non-byline contributors. Correct me if I’m wrong but that may serve the writers more than it does the reader – but I’m sure there must be a business reason as well.

Well, here’s what I wrote in response:

Ever participated in an editorial meeting in a major market news organization? I didn’t think so.

Sad to say that this is the kind of condescending and dismissive thinking that is causing pedestrian “we’ve always done it this way” journalism from getting crushed in the new media landscape. I’m sure that PalMD and every other sci/med blogger can tell you about the number of average newspaper readers who come to these blogs and inundate us with PubMed citations to support (or misinterpret) their points. Yes, average readers today do at least care about primary literature and will at least read a scientific abstract.

This is also why people who get it, like Maryn “Scary Disease Girl” McKenna [former newspaper journalist and author of Superbug blog and book] above, are kicking ass and taking names, moving forward, being successful – and still being REAL journalists. [Here is Maryn's comment for reference]

I wrote a blogpost and then an old-fashioned e-mail to my regional newspapers about this very issue noting, as did Orac, a simple hyperlink to the study in the online edition would substantially increase a story’s value without sacrificing space. The editor, Sarah Avery of the Monday Science & Technology section in the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer newspapers took this to her team and – voila! – hyperlinks now appear in stories in this section. [Note added: colleagues have reminded me that Ann Allen in Charlotte is also responsible for the success of the Sci/Tech section there.]

The practice has yet to filter to the rest of the organization but it’s a start – and why I still take the dead-tree editions of the N&O on weekends: they are responsive to readers.

But in defense of Joanne, I detected from this passage in her last comment a feeling of disgust and fatalism about her own field:

Your suggestion may seem tenable to you, as medical professionals, but it is never going to happen. The reality is that the public is lucky health/medical reporters even exist at this point. The media business is in a sorry state right now. Just as physicians claim not to be able to do certain things and remain in business, there are certain things that would be ill-advised, from a business standpoint, for the media, too. If you can’t find it on PubMed using the date information and researcher names in the story, then you probably need to try harder.

Indeed, if we are arguing about whether mainstream print media can add a single primary literature citation to a story, traditional journalism is in bigger trouble than I thought.

Comments

  1. #1 fvngvs
    June 29, 2010

    I’m a lazy sod – so I haven’t read all the background on this latest fuss. Which is not to say that it wasn’t there to be read, if I so chose.

    Still, the apparent attitude of “it’s all too hard to provide any references at all” is exactly the reason I don’t even attempt to read *any* of the med/bio articles in my newspaper.
    That makes it the papers loss – why buy it if I’m not going to read it?

    Poor journalism -> poor product -> loss of income

  2. #2 Grant
    June 29, 2010

    I agree.

    When I wrote some thoughts about different aspects of linking in media reports, when it came to “what to be linked” I couldn’t see any excuse for not linking to formal sources. (The article is linked on my name for those that want the full context.)

  3. #3 bmahersciwriter
    June 29, 2010

    I believe those long lists of contributors at the end of stories started appearing a few years ago in response to a couple of scandals about highly read, highly respected reporters doling out responsibility for some of their stories’ factual meat to underlings. It was a move toward transparency and accountability, but like you I wonder about it’s value to the reader.

  4. #4 DrugMonkey
    June 29, 2010

    …but they are just so busy, Abel. It is just too much effort to include citation information.
    /eyeroll

  5. #5 Dunc
    June 29, 2010

    If you can’t find it on PubMed using the date information and researcher names in the story, then you probably need to try harder.

    Except those details are usually conspicuous by their absence… And if you’re already got the authors and the date, you’re halfway to providing a proper ref anyway, so why not go the whole hog?

    Call me a cynic, but I suspect the answer is “plausible deniability”…

  6. #6 Jennifer Ouellette
    June 29, 2010

    The idea that the media _can’t_ include hyperlinks to source material for background, including original papers, is quite simply ludicrous. “For business reasons”? Hah. It’s better business to show your work and cite your sources, even in journalism. Doesn’t require lengthy lists and bibliographies the way you’d cite a scientific paper, because those are different beasts altogether. But to claim you can’t do it at all? I don’t buy it. In fact, I’d argue that we’ll see a lot more of than in the years to come.

    That said, I’m amazed at how few readers seem capable of using Google to its full advantage. :)

  7. #7 hat_eater
    June 29, 2010

    As someone who sat on numerous editorial meetings in a major market news organization (which Abel can verify to an extent from my email address) I can tell with a degree of certainty why such a sensible suggestion as adding links to the original research may be seen as something approaching blasphemy by the traditional media. Two reasons:
    1. We (the dead tree media) don’t need to remind the readers that they can read the news elsewhere for free, and often better presented to boot.
    2. If adding links to the scientific sources becomes the norm, it will make life so much harder for those of us who rely on making stuff up in lieu of doing proper research.
    Sorry for sounding bitter, but although I’m probably working in a slightly different division of the press than Joanne, I’m tired of having my ass kicked in the market not just by the internet news sources but also by my less accuracy-minded peers.

  8. #8 Dirk Hanson
    June 29, 2010

    Big point being overlooked here. Pause to consider the humble reader, woncha? Newspapers are not science journals. For every reader who says “ahh, thanks” for a citation, there are ten readers who will skip the article entirely, having spotted journal citations and having assumed it is not for a lay audience, but for specialists.

    The job of a science journalist is to stand between the reader and the scientist and interpret for the reader. You want the original cite? Go find it, you know how. The average reader isn’t interested in the original paper. (Having said that, I link absolutely everything I can on my science blog. It’s easy, and anybody can click. Listing links in a newspaper is awkward however you cut it.)

    Be honest now: How often do readers complain that journalists haven’t cited every book, article, or interview consulted for their piece? Are the journalists just lazy? Are they trying to cover up their own ignorance? Uh, no. Some of the greatest nonfiction writers in U.S. history–Tom Wolfe and John McPhee come to mind–didn’t even do footnotes in published nonfiction books about science topics. Journalists are not scientists. Somebody, scientists will have to learn to forgive us for that.

    We could of course quit covering science altogether. Certainly such a move would be greeted with a sigh of relief by print editors, HuffPost luddites, and, I guess, scientists themselves.

    Perhaps the “electron” media might pause before the mirror for a minute, when flinging adjectives like “condescending,” “arrogant” and “dismissive.” Is there anything more idiotic and dismissive than the jargon, “dead tree journalism?”

  9. #9 KarinNH
    June 29, 2010

    I used to teach a research course (to non-majors–it was really how-to-use-and interpret research for a field that relies on it) and one of the things I repeated over and over to my students was to question everything and to go look at the original study.

    To drive home the point, I would collect MSM articles reporting on new studies and bring them to class to compare them to the original work.

    That study on how great X is for you? Done with 8 participants. The data on Y? Done under ridiculously narrow parameters, making it virtually unusable. The article shouting Z? Poor methods. So great headlines, but….

    It certainly didn’t take long to interest average readers in finding the original source!

  10. #10 nsib
    June 29, 2010

    For every reader who says “ahh, thanks” for a citation, there are ten readers who will skip the article entirely, having spotted journal citations and having assumed it is not for a lay audience, but for specialists.

    If this were true, it would be a big point in favor of having citations. If someone is scared off merely from references, I doubt they could effectively evaluate the info in the article anyways, and considering how often journalists put their own ‘spin’ on science that flatly contradicts what the actual scientists are saying, I’d say it would be for the best if those sorts of readers skipped over science articles. Just recently, Maureen Dowd wrote a horrible piece about cell phones and cancer; and without a single cite, of course.

  11. #11 Dirk Hanson
    June 29, 2010

    KarinNH, bless her heart, vastly overestimates the intelligence and interest level of the “average” print media consumer, and how easily they are frightened off by “hard” news.

    nsib says tough, we don’t need “those sorts of readers” anyway. Dowd wrote an opinion piece, by the way. Yes it was awful, but since it appeared on the op/ed page, there is no requirement that it be sourced.

  12. #12 nsib
    June 29, 2010

    nsib says tough, we don’t need “those sorts of readers” anyway.

    Hah. I said we don’t need your hypothetical readers who are scared away by a few cites.

    Dowd wrote an opinion piece, by the way.

    Yes, she did.

    Yes it was awful, but since it appeared on the op/ed page, there is no requirement that it be sourced.

    There’s no requirement that it be sourced either way. That’s part of the point of this blog post. If you want examples of horrible reporting in news articles, too, I’d be happy to provide.

  13. #13 Mr. Gunn
    June 29, 2010

    It’s just a link. How scary can it be? Put it at the bottom and it the citation won’t scare people off.

    From the resistance I hear, it sounds like journalists are confused as to what Pubmed actually is. It’s not a news site. It’s a free index of abstracts to research, old and new. Pubmed is facts, the stories you fine folks write are, ideally, the interpretation thereof. There would be no loss of business from linking out to Pubmed from a news story.

    I think they’ve heard some ancient and expired wisdom about how one shouldn’t link to other sites because that will suck traffic away from your own. It won’t. Just link to the damn article already!

  14. #14 antipodean
    June 29, 2010

    Jennifer Said “That said, I’m amazed at how few readers seem capable of using Google to its full advantage. :)” (I see the :), but it’s a good discussion point)

    Yes, but sometimes the reporting is so bad that you can’t even find the original article in 5-10 minutes of google bashing. Sometimes you can of course. But why should we have to? They credit AP and other news sources when they cut and paste. Why can’t they link to the article or original press release they’ve just cut and pasted from?

    Answer: We don’t do that cause we’re too lazy and you’re too dumb.

    -antipodean

  15. #15 OmegaMom
    June 29, 2010

    The interesting thing is that MSM *used* to provide those links at the end of articles as a matter of course, and not just for science articles. I loved it. Then they *stopped*, slowly but surely. I remember when places like MSNBC had the “related links” at the bottom of the page, so you could, say, click through to the webpage of the artist who produced the piece, and I remember getting more and more disappointed that the MSM online editions were slowly but surely returning to their non-linky ways. It struck me as lazy and hidebound.

    For the “citations” criticism–fer gosh sake, you don’t need to write up a link like a formal citation. You write “X, Y, Z study” and provide a link. Period. Not hard, and not scary. Folks who read online are quite capable of ignoring links they’re not interested in following; after all, they’re inundated with ads that they ignore all the time…why would one more line of text, separated out by a horizontal rule and highlighted in a different font color, scare anyone?!

  16. #16 antipodean2
    June 30, 2010

    With antipodean here. Perhaps allied to the loss of citations, sub-editing has gone out the window with most of the news feeds I used to watch, and along with that went any pretence at providing useful reporting; why would I, a plain secondary-science educated reader, bother to read a second-hand (often third-hand via press release) article that either spins the result for a chancellor’s books or mangles the source, conclusions and even authors enough that you’re running down search blind alleys if you take key words from the article too seriously?
    These days I try to ignore science headlines from general online “news” organisations; it’s just like listening to gossip on the bus, which is very quickly tiring and irritating. And if a general news science headline catches my attention I don’t bother to even open the article, but go straight to fora like this one.

  17. #17 PalMD
    June 30, 2010

    Part of my frustration stems from my complete inability to find primary sources with the info available in a story. This is when a story is specifically about a particular study. And I’m pretty good with google scholar, pubmed, ovid, etc. I’m not an amateur.

    Part of the problem is journos relying on U press releases as a sole source.

    But I cannot state more emphatically that IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT YOU THINK THE “AVERAGE” READER WILL DO WITH A CITATION. It is a good practice in and of itself, it does not make the article less readable, and because it doesn’t change the article, there is no reason to play to the lowest common denominator.

    The more I think about this, the more shameful it seems. Every other type of legitimate writer is generally required to cite a source properly. There is no good reason for a journo to avoid a simple citation, even in print.

    This doesn’t mean giving away meat sources or anything, just citing a study you are writing about, and if you don’t know the citation because you cribbed it from a press release, you should probably get a job in PR instead.

    /rant

  18. #18 Kate
    June 30, 2010

    Exactly, PalMD. I often cannot find the study mentioned because all they do is say what university the study came from, or they mention one author, or the journal name. Not nearly enough for me to figure out which article they’re talking about. This is especially frustrating for me because of the number of times I have read things in women’s health magazines pertinent to what I study that I can tell are likely wrong or misreported, but then I can’t find the original article to check up on my hunch.

  19. #19 PalMD
    June 30, 2010

    It’s almost like they intentionally give insufficient info…isn’t it?

  20. #20 Dirk Hanson
    June 30, 2010

    I agree: Newspaper articles about general science topics are not constructed like a paper for a science journal. I’m not against cites; both of my nonfiction science books have hefty notes and references and sources. And I agree that a news article ought to give you enough info to find the original paper if that’s what the news article is focused on.

    But the style of citing and sourcing technical research papers is quite different from general science reporting. I say again that you will look in vain for formal cites and URLs in much of the best science writing of the past 10 years… but enough. I seem to be the only journalist in the ring here. Let the bashing recommence.

  21. #21 Blake Stacey
    June 30, 2010

    I say again that you will look in vain for formal cites and URLs in much of the best science writing of the past 10 years.

    So what? Even if that were true, it would only mean that “the best science writing” was not nearly as good as it could have been.

  22. #22 Vicki
    June 30, 2010

    I’d also like to note that the idea that “the reader can’t understand it” is context-dependent. The person who is assumed to be unable to understand numbers in the front of the paper is given whole pages of them to play with in the sports section. Somehow, abstractions like on-base percentages are supposed to be more intuitive to J. Average Reader than the inflation and unemployment rates. Never mind that most readers have gone shopping a lot more recently than they’ve played organized baseball (if indeed they ever did). It’s enough to make a person think that the people who run the newspapers don’t want their readers to understand the economy, science, or medicine. [This idea is not original to me.]

  23. #23 antipodean
    June 30, 2010

    On the other hand we active scientists can help.

    We know that MSM is going to cut and paste our press releases and publish them without attribution. So we must help our Uni/Hospital/Institute/Laboratory PR people write them better.

    And sometimes (and I have done this) we need to talk PR out of issuing a press release altogether. Sometimes you know it’s not in the public interest to PR prelim findings because the MSM will definately screw it up.

  24. #24 jason brown
    July 2, 2010

    Arrogant journalists get sacked.

    The rest are just arrogant.

    Not journalists.

  25. #25 Abel Pharmboy
    July 2, 2010

    Vicki @22 sez:

    The person who is assumed to be unable to understand numbers in the front of the paper is given whole pages of them to play with in the sports section. Somehow, abstractions like on-base percentages are supposed to be more intuitive to J. Average Reader than the inflation and unemployment rates.

    I couldn’t have said it better! I was thinking the same thing when going through the sports page this morning (I get the paper on Fri-Sat-Sun).

    antipodean @23 – In fact, many major medical center news offices are now staffed by outstanding sci/med journalists. This is good food for thought.

  26. #26 DuWayne
    July 3, 2010

    I would just like to point out Dirk (who is probably not paying attention anymore – this is what happens when I don’t read a given blog for ages), that I would be less irritable about a lack of citations, if the science reporting was generally accurate. Unfortunately, I just don’t see that happening very often – sometimes even in mediums that are specifically devoted to science reporting. It is very frustrating to read an article about something that I know rather a lot about and discover that the reporting is inaccurate. Especially on those occasions when reporters manage to not only get it wrong, but actually manage to get the actual science completely backwards.

    There are times when I feel like it might not be better not to have the science stories at all. Especially when it comes to the reporting of psychology studies. Such reporting quite often manages to either get it completely wrong, or worse, report the findings of a single study and claim that it has changed the face of psychology.

    I think the very worst example of this, has been the fiasco that is reporting about anything in evolutionary psychology. A field barely even out of fetal stage and into it’s infancy, and reporters manage to produce reporting (granted with the help of supposed scientists) that insinuated that racism and sexism actually have evolutionary justifications.

    So now whenever I mention that I am interested in researching addiction from the perspective of evolutionary psychopathology, I have to struggle to explain that no, I am not a racist, sexist asshat and that evo-psych doesn’t justify those things. Often enough, that doesn’t work out so well and I am either assumed to be racist and sexist, or I am assumed to be ignorant of the science – never mind that “the science” doesn’t actually make those claims. Badly done studies that amount to nothing more than wildass guesses – not even educated wild ass guesses – make those claims. Something that we would all be more familiar with, if “science” reporters would think a little bit and maybe – just possibly, print retractions that aren’t buried in a deep ocean trench.

  27. #27 Dirk Hanson
    July 4, 2010

    Well, but…. we had better fold up business reporting while we’re at it–business journalists were wildly inaccurate about the economic meltdown, right? So the answer is… stop covering business. Better not to write about it at all than to suffer from inferior practitioners?

    I don’t think that holds up. Plus, I have no doubt that wherever CEOs gather, they bitch about innacurate financial reporting. When politicans assemble at their favorite watering hole, one of the things they talk about is how innacurate political reporting is. And so on. Legitimate reporters ignore it and soldier on. It’s not really my job to speak for or justify shoddy journalism from others in my line of work.

  28. #28 Dirk Hanson
    July 4, 2010

    P.S. Can’t help noting the delicious irony of scientists simultaneously lambasting journalists for not doing a better job of communicating science (which scientists are generally poorly equipped to attempt on their own),while decrying the new paywall at the UK Times. So, you’re saying you want better journalism, and, by the way, it better be free. Got it.

  29. #29 DuWayne
    July 4, 2010

    Dirk –

    You are taking far too seriously my “sometimes I think,” fantasy moment. My point is not that there should be an end to science reporting, merely that it should be better and/or at least provide citations to original material.

    It’s not really my job to speak for or justify shoddy journalism from others in my line of work.

    Then what are here for exactly? This is not to say that I object to your presence. As an addiction geek, I have a rather strong appreciation for you and your blog. But if you aren’t here to speak for, or defend shit, from shit colleagues, then what is your point?

    So, you’re saying you want better journalism, and, by the way, it better be free. Got it.

    Who is saying that? I don’t see anyone here mentioning that and certainly don’t care myself. Personally, I find most local papers too painful, I see a fair amount of high school students, capable of higher quality writing. And as a student, I haven’t the time, or money for well written papers.

    I think the running themes here are pretty focused on less shitty science reporting and citations or links in online content. My personal complaint is the damage that shitty psychology reporting frequently causes.

    Believe me, I could care less what papers want to charge for. And knowing a few people who make their living from print media, I am well aware of just how rough it is at the moment.

  30. #30 Dirk Hanson
    July 4, 2010

    You’re right, I’ve gotten off topic. There are so many blog discussions right now about “Science Journalism: Threat or Menace?” that I sometimes lose track of my place in line. Apologies.