The Problems of Science Media Are Not Unique

On Twitter and blogs, we're having another round of complaints about sensationalism and hype in science stories-- Matthew Francis and Gabrielle Rabinowitz are the latest to cross my social media feeds. I've also seen some stories recently (that I'm too lazy to dig up) complaining about the latest Higgs Boson stuff, and I'm sure if you wait ten minutes there'll be a biologist upset about something in Science this week.

The basic form of this is nothing particularly new: the argument is that by representing incremental improvements in science as Revolutionary! Developments! the media are fundamentally distorting the science, and possibly creating unreasonable expectations in the general public. Which is true as far as it goes.

Meanwhile, in the non-science media, we're a few months out from the Most! Important! Election! EVER! that was going to Determine the Fate of the Nation. We've had a round of minor tax increases that were going to completely destroy our economy, the sequester cuts which ditto, and endless weeks of breathless stories about budget "negotiations" between the White House and Congress. And this week, Paul Ryan blew the dust off his budget plan from last year and re-presented it with much fanfare, where it was treated as something Interesting and Important.

You know, as a general matter, I don't think the way our political media behaves is a Good Thing, but in this one respect, I wonder if it might not be a good idea for scientists and science writers to take a cue from the rest of the media. The problem of grotesquely overhyping non-stories is not remotely unique to science media, and yet there seems to be far more complaining about it from within science.

Maybe the problem isn't that we need to radically re-think the way science stories are reported in the media, because really, current practice is not at all out of line with how absolutely everything else is presented in the media. Maybe we just need to re-think the amount of time we spend fretting about how science stories are reported in the media, and focus on getting on with our lives.

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I don't see why we shouldn't try to make changes to science reporting when it is the primary source of science education for the general public. It influences peoples' health decisions and voting choices. Bad science reporting can encourage extremism and ignorance but GOOD science reporting, and the kind of direct science communication that social media is making possible, can foster critical thinking and scientific literacy. I agree that sitting and complaining isn't going to get us anywhere, but providing resources for an inquiring public (which we scientist bloggers are increasingly trying to do) can only be a good thing!

By Gabrielle Rabinowitz (not verified) on 15 Mar 2013 #permalink

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems you’re saying that poor/sensationalist science reporting isn’t a problem because it is also a problem in all other journalism. To me, that doesn’t quite follow.

Anyway, are you sure that it’s just scientists complaining about the hyped-up media coverage of their area? I would be surprised. However, if they are alone in being weary of over-the-top stories, that still doesn’t mean that they should learn to put up with it. Could it be that the scientific community is actually right to complain, and to seek out solutions? Is there something about the critical-thinking, evidence-based worldview pursued in science that makes practitioners more likely to want fair reflections in the press? (For what it’s worth, I’m not sure there is.) If so, surely that’s a good thing. Shouldn’t everyone else also be doing so too?

My point is that dealing with overhype is, to a large degree, a previously solved problem. Every field deals with the same issues, with the media careening from breathlessly reporting on one non-story to another, and none of them have gone into total collapse yet. And very few of these areas engage in the sort of hand-wringing and breast-beating that science media does every month or so. Even the debacle that was election punditry in 2012 didn't provoke much in the way of self-reflection, and God knows it didn't change anything. The same commentators are right back out there saying the same things in the same overwrought manner.

So, I'm starting to think that the bad consequences we fear will happen from overhyping science stories are mostly in our heads. Yeah, much of the science stories that get pushed to the general public are overblown, but so are most of the political stories, and economic stories, and social trend stories, and celebrity gossip stories, and on, and on. People will get used to it, the way they've gotten used to every stupid rhetorical gambit in Washington being an Existential Threat to Our Way of Life, only it isn't, but then the next thing is Even Bigger and More Important...

I'll admit that I'm conflicted here, because I don't really think this is a healthy state, for any of our media. I've basically stopped following any kind of news because I just can't maintain the level of perpetual stress and indignation that seems to be demanded these days. But as much as I personally don't like it, it doesn't seem to be having a catastrophic effect on public interest in anything. So I'm not sure why the situation should be any worse for science.

Alex: Chad explicitly states in the post that he doesn't think sensationalist political reporting us a good thing. What he does say is that scientists are more likely to complain about sensationalist science reporting than other people are to complain about sensationalist political reporting.

However, I disagree with Chad on the latter point. He sees scientists complaining about science reporting because he knows a bunch of scientists and reads a bunch of science-related blogs. But I suspect that this is a selection bias on Chad's part. I lurk on Brad DeLong's blog (among others), and "Why can't we have a better press corps?" is one of Brad's recurring refrains. Brad's complaints about economic and political reporting are similar in many ways to the complaints Chad describes about science reporting. Brad is hardly alone in making his complaints.

The problem, both in political journalism and science journalism, is that sensational stories attract eyeballs. So there is an incentive to make every science story seem More Important than it actually is, just as there is an incentive to make every political story seem More Important than it actually is. And while blogs and social media have helped somewhat to push back against this tendency, it's clearly not enough.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Mar 2013 #permalink

I'm not saying that nobody complains about overhype in politics and economics, but that it doesn't dominate the coverage I see the way that the parallel issue does in science. Yeah, Brad laments our low-quality press corps, and Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein will write about how there ought to be more attention paid to wonky details, but the majority of people writing about politics and policy just accept that the coverage will be overblown, and mentally correct for it.

The politics/science media treatment perception divide is probably driven by the differing attitudes of the main players. While there is certainly a set of people calling for calm and rational discussion of political issues, they're not ones you've ever heard of, and certainly not the ones in the news every night.

Paul Ryan probably *wants* you to get all breathlessly excited at him dusting off the same budget he presented last time. He loves when the media makes hay about it. Politicians *want* you to be driven into a frenzy by the latest manufactured crisis. It's how politics works - you polarize your base, you get people to turn out in support, you get people excited and involved. You want people in the back carrying torches and pitchforks while you're the person knocking on the castle door and making demands.

On the other hand, scientists would prefer everyone sit down and rationally discuss implications of reanimation. Have a cup of tea and make a five-year research plan to study how the "monster" could possibly be integrated into society. Does it feel pain? Is it capable of moral choice? Why does it have a fear of fire - is it a preexisting fear of the donor, a side effect of reanimation, or indicative of base primal instincts coming out? Can its mood swings and bouts of aggression be treated with SSRIs? -- Yes, we may have to destroy it eventually as an abomination against God and man, but there's a number of questions we have to ask before we reach that point. "More study is needed."

I think Chad's pointing out a fundamental flaw in news reporting - yes, most of science reporting is overhyped nothing, but most of *all* reporting is overhyped nothing, stated in breathless tones like the world will end. It's not limited to politics. Economics, lifestyle, sports, it's all presented in hyperbole. ("University X didn't make it to the playoffs - what does this mean for the team?" - It mean they lost a game. Disappointing, but they will get to play again next year.) You're not "just" proposing changing science reporting, you're proposing changing a fundamental property of modern reporting itself

Journalists can (often/sometimes) correct hype in current affairs, straight news, politics, etc. But they have trouble doing that with science, mainly for lack of background. So the problem may have been solved elsewhere, but that doesn't help with science reporting .

This problem is not limited to the press. Examples of investigators over-hyping become more common daily. Everyone's fighting for a piece of the 24/7 news and for grants.

By Jack Schultz (not verified) on 15 Mar 2013 #permalink

Interesting topic and discussion. There is a role for both peer reviewed and media based reporting on science. Just as media based reporting can be overhyped, what happens when the silo of peer review gets it wrong? Media based reporting, in particular blogs have a broad base of peer review. When Wikipedia began everyone doubted its value because of the potential for material to be placed on it without review. Experience now shows that if enough of the 'crowd' is contributing social media based information becomes very robust sources of information. Scientists should be blogging and reading blogs and commenting. Who better to report on science. Was it better before we had widespread use of the internet when the reporting was from a 'science' journalist who rarely understood the topic?

By Scott Wagers (not verified) on 15 Mar 2013 #permalink

It would seem that part of the reason for the complaints is that scientists are trained to think and act in a manner different from politicians. Politicians advance their causes (and therefor their careers) by creating rhetoric that motivates people, the underlying facts and complexities are secondary considerations. Scientists advance through careful, deliberate research and well supported findings that hold up scrutiny.

I agree with the basic premise here, if scientists want to improve the accuracy of science reporting sitting around complaining isn't going to help. We have to accept the system for what it is, recognize it has different incentives and figure out how to work with it to improve the understanding of science in the public.

By OccamsEdge (not verified) on 17 Mar 2013 #permalink

I agree with OccamsEdge that scientists have to work to improve the understanding of science in the public. In biomedical research there is a growing interest in using larger and larger datasets to move towards personalized medicine. So, more than ever before getting the public to understand the science is critically important.

By Scott Wagers (not verified) on 17 Mar 2013 #permalink

I understand that scientists like to get all the facts in hand and the media largely ignores anything that doesn't suit their fancy. But my worry isn't necessarily the over-hype of some individual story or discovery, but rather the prevailing attitude it engenders in the general public. The nonscientific, general public vote for the politicians, sit on local school boards, consist of the small business owners & most every company's management structure. They get most of their news about science from the media--a media creating controversy where there is none, promoting high expectations from rudimentary/preliminary data, and failing to highlight the stories that actually did change our lives.

Stories about long term perseverance despite lack of funding and makeshift equipment to arrive at a vital discovery are overlooked in deference to (or ignorance) for POM's latest discovery that their product will save you from cancer & cardiovasular disease. This reinforces the instant gratification culture, frees people to NOT try to solve problems (science: will solve it, if it actually is a problem) and prompts people to arrogantly question the professional opinion of capable scientists. It will have to be scientists working to change the reporting system, because the press isn't likely to self-regulate itself any time soon.

By alwayscurious (not verified) on 26 Mar 2013 #permalink