Friday, March 27, 2009

Media distortion damages both science and journalism

 
New Scientist has just published an article on the dangers of bad science journalism. Irony noted.

Simon Baron-Cohen explains how Media distortion damages both science and journalism .
WHEN media reports state that scientist X of Y university has discovered that A is linked to B, we ought to be able to trust them. Sadly, as many researchers know, we can't.

This has three serious consequences. For starters, every time the media misreports science, it chips away at the credibility of both enterprises. Misreporting can also engender panic, as people start to fear the adverse consequences of the supposed new link between A and B. Lastly, there can be a damaging effect on researchers' behaviour. Funding agencies and science institutions rightly encourage scientists to communicate with the media, to keep the public informed about their research and so foster trust. If their work is misrepresented, they may withdraw into the lab rather than risk having to spend hours setting the record straight.

I work in one of those sensitive areas of research, autism, in which the facts are liable to be misreported or - sometimes worse - misinterpreted.


[Photo Credit: Simon Baron-Cohen: by Brian Harris (GNU Free Documentation License).]

7 comments :

  1. I'm neither a scientist nor a journalist, but I've read enough to recognize that there's significant blame attached to the "journalism" side.

    However, I also wonder how much blame is due to those scientists who cannot explain their work and its significance crisply and concisely either to a journalist directly or to a university media intermediary. This would be a combination of not asking the right questions of the journalist, not saying the right things about their work, and not providing an effective context.

    I've talked to just enough scientists about their work that I'm pretty confident that the answer to my question is not, "None at all ... scientists are blameless." :-)

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  2. A journalist's only job is to find out and explain stuff. If scientists were especially good at explaining things, then they wouldn't need journalists at all.

    The problem with journalists is that they feel like they work in an adversarial system. So they think that every piece is sort of like an expose. Really, for mainstream journalists to write an expose about science would be like a macaque critiquing Hamlet. Anyway, in spite of this, the journalists don't run the story by the scientist (or hell anyone remotely connected with the field) so all sorts of goofy errors and weird statements creep in there. Just read a couple articles on www.cbc.ca/news. For most of them you can tell that some reporter was left at the end of an interview with a notepad full of keywords. So they try to work those into sentences that are at least grammatically correct (usually) and mix those up with the press release and hey presto - science journalism. But to run the story past the scientist would violate the integrity and objectivity *eye roll*

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  3. MattK, what are you talking about?

    Journalists don't have a problem running anything back by the scientist, especially their interpretation of the data if it's at all unclear...we do it all the time.

    We also go one step further and get the opinion of at least one other scientist in the same field.

    It's not uncommon for a scientist to defend her research as the most important thing going in the world--I think it's part of the grant-writing mindset and constantly having one's work shredded during lab meetings--especially when they're being interviewed.

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  4. Scott asks,

    However, I also wonder how much blame is due to those scientists who cannot explain their work and its significance crisply and concisely either to a journalist directly or to a university media intermediary. This would be a combination of not asking the right questions of the journalist, not saying the right things about their work, and not providing an effective context.

    I don't think that's the main problem these days. I think scientists are usually pretty good at getting journalists to buy into their pet theories and explanations.

    The problem is that the scientists are often wrong—or, at the very least, guilty of exaggeration and hype. I expect good science journalists to be skeptical and do some digging to find our the real truth behind the "breakthrough."

    This is what science journalists claim to be doing. It's what they consider to be the "added value" of their profession. If, instead, they are just falling for the spin of the press release and the self-centered view of the scientists then they are not doing a useful service.

    On the contrary, they are aiding and abetting the problem.

    There are two things that need fixing. Science and science journalism. The most serious is the science. I'd love to be able to count on good science journalists to help fix this problem and that's why I'm so disappointed to discover that they're part of the problem.

    Bad scientists and bad science journalists are a deadly combination.

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  5. "MattK, what are you talking about?

    Journalists don't have a problem running anything back by the scientist, especially their interpretation of the data if it's at all unclear...we do it all the time."


    Did you go and read anything at CBC? Either they're not running anything by the scientists or they are just strait up mentally enfeebled. And it is not just CBC either.

    I'm not saying that there are not good science journalists out there and if you are one good for you. But don't try and feed me some pablum that suggests that is the mean and mode of science journalism in this country.

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  6. Simon's argument is the standard politician's line: "I've been misquoted" or "you've taken my comments out of context."

    Nonsense

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  7. One of the keys is for researchers and scholars in universities to free the legions writers and editors they hire.

    As long as scientists themselves continue to deny basic freedoms (to inquire and express) to the people they hire they have no ethical credibility. You can't pretend to be for free inquiry and expression when you work hard to control inquiry and expression.

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