Science and the News Media

I am sure each of us has had that moment when we have cracked open a newspaper or magazine to find an article on a scientific topic so bland it makes Cream of Wheat seem exciting.

Well, maybe not that extreme... but sometimes you read an article and it is grossly apparent that the journalist has no background in science nor did he or she even care about the subject.

Often the reports come up dry and formulaic. Where's the excitement? Where is the passion and thrill of discovery that accompanies great steps in the scientific community? Scientific articles need to maintain a degree of neutrality, but journalism has much more leeway! Readers demand more than regurgitated press release facts!

The scientific method is understandably structured - constants and variables, hypotheses and results. Scientific articles often follow a similar structure, stating experimental methods and using data tables but news media articles on scientific discoveries have no excuse for rigid formatting and bland writing.

One journalist with a background in science had had quite enough. In his article "This is a news website article about a scientific paper" in The Guardian, Martin Robbins declares open season on journalists guilty of cookie-cutter science reports.

His opening paragraph seems all too familiar:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of "scare quotes" to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

And so does one of his last:

If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public "controversy" exists.

His parody article was the most popular article on the Guardian that week and attracted a host of parody comments to match. The surprising response he received led him to write a follow up article "Why I spoofed science journalism, and how to fix it"

In this article, Robbins explores (almost scientifically) the internal shortcomings within the news media that have lead to a culture of template articles and some ways to combat it. Perhaps it's the timelines that yield flavorless articles or maybe it's the performance measurements used to gauge journalist success.

Regardless, the public winds up with thousands of almost identical articles all written from a single press release, all devoid of opinions and in-depth research or reporting. When the public depends on the news media for, well, news, they may form completely incorrect opinions of the scientific community:

Members of the public could be forgiven for believing that science involves occasional discoveries interspersed with long periods of 'not very much happening right now'. The reality of science is almost the complete opposite of this. We spend centuries incrementally building little piles of knowledge, and it's extremely rare that an individual paper or piece of work is really that profoundly important... Often we can only assess the importance of research with hindsight.

Robbins references blogs as the best sources for insightful science news.

What is your opinion of news media coverage of science?

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Elizabeth, I'm sure that much of the ChEnected community could relate to media sites treating science in a completely unscientific and sophomoric way. So much is misrepresented in the media.

RGCook's picture

Passion is requisite to great accomplishment. Here's the problem as I see it - engineers and scientists are taught how to write like engineers and scientists. Scientific reports can not be easily transcribed into engaging fodder for the mass media without someone such as yourself to apply the filter needed. There's a time for dry scientific prose and a time when less formal approaches do better. Great post.

ehorahan's picture

Thanks for the feedback! I agree that a filter is needed to express the dry scientific report in a way that would appeal to the general public - and we see it sometimes, its just that not enough of the news media has this filter or the apparent desire to try to acquire it.