Where Does Bad Science Writing Come From?

A discussion on Twitter yesterday dredged up the common theme of “journalists screw up science stories,” and when I weighed in it became clear that a lot of folks – including some science journalists – seem to have some strange ideas about how the news business operates these days. It started with a post by science blogger Drug Monkey. Don’t let his pseudonym fool you, he’s a sharp scientist who often has excellent insights.

In this case, he was complaining about the coverage of a psychology study on “male gaze,” which outlets such as USA Today and Jezebel reported as showing that men stare at women’s bodies more than their faces. It was a fine piece of link bait, except that the actual paper shows exactly the opposite. Read Drug Monkey’s post for the details, but be sure you catch his updates at the bottom, in which he finally realizes that the authors of the study probably deserve more than a little bit of blame for this miscommunication; USA Today simply parroted their press release, and Jezebel parroted USA Today.

This telephone-game reporting led to the following:

Standard media-bashing stuff that we hear all the time. When I pointed out that he was tarring with a pretty broad brush, though, he expanded on the argument:

There’s the rub. Scientists universally proclaim that the job of science journalists is to evaluate the data and explain the results to the public. To do that, the journalists must read the papers they’re covering, think about the data, and talk to the scientists who did the work. Numerous science journalists chimed in on the Twitter thread to endorse that view. However, this presumes that journalism, like science, is aiming for Truth. That’s a lovely idea, but it misses reality by a wide margin.

First, let’s look at the big picture. Science journalism is an itty bitty, teeny tiny piece of the profession of journalism. It’s not even in the main stream of the business, as Dan Vergano (former senior science writer at USA Today) eloquently explains in this interview. Dan describes science writing as a “ghetto” within journalism, and he has a pretty good point. If you’re at a big paper or national TV news network, specializing in science is a good way to avoid ever getting promoted to a top editorial or production post. No, regular front page stories and major promotions are for the investigative journalists, the foreign correspondents, and the veteran political reporters. Science rides in the back.

There’s some logic to that. Ideally, journalism should inform the public about the things they really need to know to be responsible citizens. Most of those things are not science. How’s the Obamacare rollout really going? Are my taxes being spent responsibly? What’s the deal with Syria? Those are the sorts of topics behind most of the hot, important stories. They are the mainstay of news, and the whole business’s workflow is built around covering them in the best way possible. So, Dr. Scientist, how do we present the Truth about subjects like healthcare reform, taxes, and the Middle East, sticking solely to the facts and avoiding that false balance you hate so much?

Sorry, trick question. There is seldom any single, definitive Truth about those types of subjects, and trying to present it as such will make you look like a shill, sound like an idiot, get a fatwa placed on your head, or possibly all three. The best – or perhaps just the least bad – solution is to try to present as many sides of the issue as you can figure out before your deadline, and let the reader or viewer decide.

Of course that approach often fails when it comes to science, because science is different. Science can actually find Truth.* Back when major newsrooms had dedicated science journalists on staff, those folks became accustomed to the specialty’s distinct requirements. They would try to read the research paper, call the scientist who did the work, discuss the data, and then call some other scientists for independent perspectives. Because the science stories were considered “fluff” by the hard-boiled reporters who ran the place, the deadlines were usually loose enough that there was time to do it right. There was also more than enough cash in the coffers to keep paying a living wage to all those full-time science writers, even though their department was a chronic money-loser.

Those days are gone.

At least at mainstream outlets, the “science reporter” is often whatever poor schmuck happened to be walking past an editor’s desk when a press release arrived.  Having just finished a piece about the government shutdown, the Red Sox, or some bit of celebrity misconduct, this soon-to-be-laid-off person is now looking at a blank word processor page and a deadline of “why aren’t you done yet?”

I’m not making excuses for what often happens next. Anyone who’s read my previous posts knows I’m no defender of bad science reporting. However, I do have some sympathy for the people who produce it, and try to leave my entitlement and hubris at the door. And when the scientists themselves are deliberately misleading the reporters, as happened in this case, I think it’s asking a lot to expect mainstream news outlets that you’re reading for free to get the story right.

That doesn’t mean good science reporting is gone. In fact it’s easier to find than ever. Science bloggers at general news sites and special interest publications post torrents of great work, and some forward-thinking scientific organizations now produce high quality multimedia stories for their members as well. The only problem with this arrangement is that the audience for these sites is a self-selecting minority. That’s probably okay when we’re talking about duck penises and dinosaur feathers, but there are some scientific topics that the general public desperately needs to understand. If journalism is to fulfill its primary mission of informing a responsible citizenry, we need a better way.

  • Or at least some trans-subjective truths.