The Rift Between Journalism and Science

How to repair a fraying relationship between scientists and reporters?

Raise your hand if you think journalists often mangle science? Overhype a study? Inject “false balance” into stories? The litany of real and perceived journalistic sins is a long one.

You can put your hand down now.

Commentary

But is all the constant carping and criticism fair? One science journalist thinks not. Ananyo Bhattacharya, the chief online editor for Nature, has published an essay in the Guardian, titled, “Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism.” The piece responds to common complaints from scientists about journalism: misleading headlines, cherry-picked quotes, and caveats being left out of stories, to name a few.

Bhattacharya’s essay triggered an immediate Twitter and blog storm. Many, scientists and writers alike, charged that Bhattacharya was rationalizing or downplaying shoddy journalism practices. One scientist dashed off an acerbic rejoinder titled, “Nine ways journalists demonstrate they don’t understand science.”

At the Discover magazine website, science writer Ed Yong found the conflict between scientists and journalists “tedious.” He wrote: “We’ve been doing this for years now, with no progress. Two sides, shouting at each other, shouting past each other, resorting to caricatures, and making no/little attempt at mutual understanding.”

Bhattacharya responded to some of his critics on Twitter and also in the comment thread of Yong’s post, where he stood his ground: “Scientists and others must learn to judge science journalism by the standards of journalism — and not by the standards of science or anything else ….”

This schism between scientists and journalists often flares up in the climate debate, as it did during an AAAS panel in 2011. In this case, there were testy exchanges between two science reporters (for NPR and AP) and climate scientists, who couldn’t agree on what factors constituted a legitimate story. As with the larger standoff between climate contrarians and the climate-concerned community, the squabbling between journalists and climate scientists seems like a clash of cultures, with the two sides unable to escape the clutches of their own conventions.

What is tenaciously contested is a portrayal of science and its findings. Here, Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist, offers some useful advice in a recent interview, when he says it is more important “that people get a sense of the science as a work in progress, rather than one particular message or piece of content knowledge getting hammered home.”

Schmidt goes on to say that climate news stories often lack context and fail to convey “science as a process.”

Of course, journalism in the digital age is now considered very much to be a dynamic, continuous process, too. Is not news every bit as provisional as the latest science discovery? Perhaps there is more common ground for scientists and journalists to build on than they appreciate.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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7 Responses to The Rift Between Journalism and Science

  1. Mary says:

    I thought Ed’s diagram got it exactly right. And I think both “good” teams want the right things–correct info, and wide dispersal and awareness, ultimately. But the perspectives are different.

    And as much as I hate the silly headlines, I understand they draw eyeballs. But the false ones make my head asplode. Of course, those are the ones I remember most.

    But there was another interesting discussion on the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast, when the group was discussing balance (the specific program is: “A Balanced Programme on Balance” here http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/timc ). The woman who wasn’t a scientist made a good point: when scientists leave science to enter the media sphere, the rules change. We have to use their rules.

    That makes me uncomfortable, but I can see the point. I just don’t like the media rules because they don’t seem to work–it looks to me like that’s helping to polarize us on certain topics. Scientists may disagree within the science sphere, but we all understand the data ground rules and we generally get to the the strongest point in the end. I don’t feel like the media rules are getting us there.

  2. Gary Braasch says:

    Of course journalism and science have common ground in the process and the method. Many great stories are found by a reporter looking through reams of testimony or years of records to find nuances of reality and trends of events. How many times do we see follow-up stories of court cases or political charges where new research or information is said to change the original understanding. Where I find a discrepancy is in the comment by Seth Borenstein, reported by Bud Ward, during an AAAS panel in 2011, which Keith referenced: ““It is the equivalent of planes landing safely every day.” He [Borenstein] schooled the audience that more of the same isn’t news for most editors and reporters. What makes news is breaking that mold, not simply sustaining it yet again, he explained.” I am sorry to report that this is just not the case during political campaigns, wherein we find ourselves again. Editors are quite happy reporting on the same stump speeches and campaign statements day after day after day — while, I can say from personal experience, rejecting science and nature stories because “we did a [name your general science topic] story last month.”
    Science and nature process stories can be important. The series by Jason Gillis in the NY Times on general climate science is a good example. But there is a double standard in editorial judgment sometimes.

  3. grypo says:

    This feud caught my interest as well. I came out seeing that both sides want to keep their objectivity in check, except for agreeing on a few obvious facts. This has created a murky middle when it comes to the politics. It has also lent itself to marginalizing certain media members and scientists who have taken moral stands on the issues. This is the real harm done by feud. The regular person really has no idea how this all effects them. Blaming it all on misunderstanding each other’s field is a distraction form the real question. Have the people most important in displaying this information lost their moral center?

  4. Paul Kelly says:

    The Shindall Science paper is an example of climate news that has been well reported by journalists including Andrew Freeman and others. The exposition of the science accurately follows what is in the paper. The paper presents an improved approach to climate mitigation. The paper shows that short lived and long lived forcings are of equal(?) importance. It lays out 14 specific achievable actions to reduce short lived forcings.

    The science reporting in this case is the kind the climate concerned should be applauding and spreading around. Surprisingly, many “we must follow the science” types are dismissing or ignoring the reporting and the paper. At Planet3.0 the quote was: “The most accurate thing we can say about this study and the discussion it has triggered is that it doesn’t change anything.”

  5. keith Kloor says:

    Mary, Gary, Paul, grypo, Thanks for the comments. You all make excellent observations about this vexing problem.

    I have hope that things will improve, for as someone (I can’t recall who) tweeted or blogged recently, this conversation is at least happening via twitter and blogs.

  6. Paul Kelly says:

    Mom always said things will improve if you let them. Generally speaking, the more passionate a person is about something, the more inadequate he thinks the journalism about it is.

  7. Linzel says:

    I’m particularly upset at the lack of accuracy and understanding by the general audience. When evolutionary theory is discussed in journalism in a manner that encourages ignorance, there is a problem. When climate change is discussed by journalists that encourages ignorance, there is a problem. Balance in journalism does not equate to balance of the evidence – this causes ignorance, doubt, and creates a problem. I cannot suggest who is at fault. It is a multivariable intersection of science, business, reporting, language use, ignorance, and more – all rolled into one big mess. Like a bad burrito.