A recent article in Science, The Unwritten Rules of Journalism by Adam Rubin highlights, in an entertaining way, many of the problems with science journalism. He echoes points we have made numerous times in the skeptical literature, so it is good to see the scientific community also taking notice of the problem.
There are likely a few causes of the poor quality of science reporting. Primarily, in my opinion, there is simply a disconnect between two specialized areas - knowledge of science and communication skills. Journalists are trained to communicate to the public in an accessible and interesting way, but their knowledge of science is highly variable. Even a generally scientifically literate journalist will likely still lack in depth knowledge concerning the topic of his article, whether a new bit of research or a scientific controversy.
In addition, scientists do not get any specific training in communication skills or journalists skills. If you read many papers published in the technical literature you will see a wide range of writing skills displayed.
To have effective science journalism we either need to have highly scientifically literate journalists or scientists who are skilled at communicating to the public. In addition we need effective communication between the two. Unfortunately, for most science reporting, we don't have this.
In fact, the situation has been getting worse. It has been lamented many times already that the changing landscape of news reporting brought about by the internet has caused many large news organizations to decrease or even eliminate their support for specialty reporting, such as science journalists. So now we have much science reporting being done by reporters who are not trained science journalists, and going through editors who are not science editors.
The features of cliche science reporting that Rubin exposes are largely due to the application of the general journalistic style to science reporting. This is not a new problem, but it is exacerbated by recent trends.
For example, he points out that science articles often try to make a connection from the subject of the research being reported to a common problem the reader will relate to. This is the kind of journalism 101 tactics that are common when reporting about fluff or social issues, but when applied to scientific research result in distortion.
I previously pointed out, for example, that every time a journalist reports about a scientific study that has anything to do with viruses the focus of the article is - potential cure for the common cold - even if the virus in question is not a cold virus, and the research has nothing to do with treating viral infections. Another common target is - a potential cure for cancer. That is the holy grail of medical news headlines.
The same problem exists outside of medicine. Any paleontological discovery is a "missing link." Any physics discovery might lead to anti-gravity devices, teleportation, or faster than light drive.
Perhaps the biggest problem Rubin pointed out was the issue of false balance and false controversies. Controversies are interesting and sensational, so no matter how solid the science is the journalist will find a dissenter and present the issue as a burning scientific controversy. This is especially harmful when a fringe group is exploiting this fact to promote a "manufactroversy" such as the safety of vaccines, fluoride in the water supply, or the teaching of evolution.
There are a couple of points that Rubin did not expressly discuss, however, that also deserve mention. One I wrote about on Science-Based Medicine just this week - the reporting of preliminary findings in science.
The problem here is that small and preliminary studies are reported on as if they are big news. Preliminary studies, however, are exploratory, which means they are likely mostly wrong. Their purpose is only to inform later confirmatory research. Reporting the results of every preliminary study causes a great deal of confusion by putting out into the public (sometimes with press releases and misleading headlines and reporting as above) lots of ideas that will turn out to be wrong.
The net effect of this is for many ultimately wrong conclusions to be reported to the public. This also leads to a great deal of conflicting conclusions being reported, which causes the public to lose faith in the whole scientific enterprise. The news media makes it seem like scientists themselves are constantly crying wolf about a new cure for cancer, obesity, or the common cold, or that they are constantly flip-flopping on core ideas of science.
How many times, if you believe headlines, has Einstein finally been proven wrong, or have scientists been "baffled" by some conclusion in science we thought was solid? It also seems like every week scientists have discovered a battery breakthrough, or finally cracked the solar power problem. If you believe science reporting, any day now we will be flying around in solar powered cars with high capacity batteries, piloted by an artificially intelligent onboard computer.
Further, the press often does not do the proper follow up when preliminary findings do not pan out, or when they do not survive review by the wider community.
Related to this is the frequent failure to put new scientific studies into proper context. How does this fit in to our broader understanding of this issue and existing evidence? Individual news items, rather, are often reported as if they are the final word on the topic. Were the dinosaurs wiped out by a meteor strike or by something else? This is a genuine debate, but I have never seen a popular news report ever put the question into a reasonable scientific context. Rather, each news item is reported from the perspective of the scientist talking to the journalist, as if this one new study settles the debate in favor of that scientist.
This relates to yet another problem with science reporting - journalists often confuse the authority of a single expert with the consensus of opinion of the scientific community. This is the opposite of the false controversy problem - it's a false consensus problem. A journalist unfamiliar with the scientific community might not realize that the one scientist they are talking to has an individual opinion which might not reflect what most other scientists in the field think.
It's not all bad news. There are some excellent science journalists out there, but they are, unfortunately, in the minority. Also the advent of the internet has also provided a potential solution to the problem it exacerbated - allowing scientists to get more involved in reporting about their own research and their own field.
Ultimately I think education will be the solution to the problem of bad science reporting. Journalists need to be educated about science. Scientists need to be educated about how to talk to journalists and how to communicate directly to the public. And the public needs to be educated about how to be skeptical consumers of science news.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.
Dr. Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society and the host and producer of the popular weekly science show, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. He also authors the NeuroLogica Blog.