Science meets journalism: from balled fists to handshakes to high fives

There has been a fair debate raging between scientists and journalists over science journalism. Should journalists share text and quotes with scientists whom they have consulted in writing their articles? More importantly, why or why not? On the one hand, scientists are almost unanimous in agreeing that they have a right to see the copy. Journalists and many publications are equally adamant that they are not obliged to, or should not, share their copy.


Many scientists have expressed their struggles with journalists. Journalists will call to discuss one subject or another, take up a lot of their time, and then refuse to share what they have written based on these conversations. Scientists complain that this frequently results in their getting facts (major and minor) wrong, and more often, in getting a nuance or interpretation wrong.


While it might seem to scientists that they are up against journalists, its also important to keep in mind that the latter themselves have to negotiate their articles with publication editors, and sometimes have little control over headlines (for amusement, see here), and even the content of their articles. Often, journalists themselves do not get to see the final copy.


One is pretty certain that journalists are equally frustrated by their interaction with scientists. They likely feel that scientists look down on them (even though they may be science graduates), want to edit their writing though they may have little clue about writing for the public, and probably want to be given far more credit than they deserve. Certainly, scientists can rank amongst the most self centered, egotistical, opinionated, pompous and pampered people on the planet.


However, science does have some decent (and replicable) attributes. Scientists, natural and social, believe that their goal is to get at the ‘truth’. As fuzzy as the concept might be, the methods and processes are designed to reduce error and subjectivity, and one assumes that the goal of good journalism is the same.  Regardless of whether one has a positivist (absolute truth or fact) or a post-modernist (its all subjective) view, few people will argue that a spectrum exists from opinion to interpretation to fact.


Some journalists have argued that there is an ethical reason for this refusal to share copy, but this is hard to fathom. Most, however, have pointed to two factors, one practical and one philosophical. The first is that of time: it is simply not possible to get feedback from all of one’s informants within the time frames that most journalists in newspapers and magazines work with. This is an acceptable reason but does not preclude requesting feedback with fixed time limits.


The second is one of journalistic independence. Without doubt, the notion that journalists must be free to report objectively is correct, and one must protect the freedom of the press. However, an important distinction needs to be made – scientists are both experts and stakeholder, and the relevance of conflict of interest is far greater in the latter case. In a piece about science, scientists may play either role, and making this critical distinction could result in better reporting and save heartache.


At the end of the day, one assumes that we all want to move forward towards better reporting of science.  To move forward constructively, I have some suggestions for both parties. Journalists could decide (in consultation) which class the scientist belongs to with regard to the piece they are writing which would then determine whether they are willing to share what they have written.


The first is that of the subject expert, where the scientist is consulted for their knowledge about a particular system. If a scientist is consulted on a wide range of issues pertaining to the topic, and the piece is largely shaped by their inputs, then I believe that there is maximum benefit in sharing the entire piece. The scientist is likely a better judge of the nuances of the story (which they have spent years or perhaps decades studying) than the journalist. This will likely result in the reduction of blatant errors and introduce some nice detail. Perhaps some opinion does filter in, but it likely imposes a relatively low cost.


Sometimes, journalists may consult many scientists with either similar or opposing views. This is perfectly reasonable. Here, the journalist could share each of the sections that the expert has contributed to, not just the quotes, but the context as well as content relating to that expertise. In both of these instances, the article can benefit tremendously from fact and nuance checking, again while having little cost. There is no obligation for journalists to follow every edit or ‘instruction’.


Finally, the scientist (or politician or sportsperson) may simply be a stakeholder, a player in the larger story the journalist is telling. In this instance, I do not believe there is either obligation or utility in sharing the copy other than the quote. No doubt there is fuzziness in what role the scientist actually plays, but asking this question will get us one step closer to an accurately reported story and greater collegiality.


A good part of science journalism involves the coverage of research done by a scientist/lab, often pertaining to a single research paper.  Here, the scientist’s role is a hybrid between expert and stakeholder. And while there may be relatively little conflict of interest for the scientist with regard to the results of the research, there is obviously a vested interest in reflecting how important it is. In this case, it would help to get the scientist’s inputs on the copy to ensure that the work has been accurately described, but journalists could also get an independent expert opinion of the salience of the science.


On the other side, scientists need to be careful not to edit the story or change the language to suit their sensibilities. They should be more respectful in general of journalists’ ability to grasp the science, and to write about it in a way that is appealing to a larger readership. Most importantly, they cannot be patronizing and imply that science journalism is a trivial afterthought to science. Reaching science to society is essential and perforce, a collaborative enterprise.


Peer review in science, warts and all, is in principle designed to improve logic, analysis and inference. In addition, most students work with mentors, and most papers are written with some input from colleagues and collaborators who have some knowledge of the subject. Unfortunately, in many editorial constructs, journalists have no formal input into the content of their pieces, just language editing. The idea of fact-checkers has not unfortunately made its way into Indian journalism.


In the spirit of collaboration, lets work together to improve science communication and journalism. The quality of the product can only improve by co-opting one of the paradigms in science that is worthwhile – the notion of review.  This can surely be done with strict time limits, and without obligation to follow ‘instructions’ from scientists. Surely this will help in getting our stories right, and building a better relationship between journalists and scientists.


Kartik Shanker is Director of ATREE, Faculty at the Indian Institute of Science, and Founding Trustee of Dakshin Foundation. This article was greatly improved by inputs from numerous journalists, editors and scientists (but it did take a couple of months to pull together).

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