Should journalists allow scientists to review their quotes or text before publication? At first glance, this fundamental journalism question appears to be black and white, but it turns out to have a lot of gray.
The question was posed early last month on Twitter by neuroscientist Kyle Jasmin, an independent research fellow at the University of London’s Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck. After more than 4,600 responses, 79 percent — the majority of them scientists — voted that they should be allowed to review an article before publication. The discussion that erupted in follow-up comments, however, was far more mixed. Many in the press raised the issue of journalistic integrity: A White House reporter, after all, would never allow a politician to review a quote. Scientists countered with tales of being misquoted or maligned by bad reporting.
It is concerning that these two symbiotic disciplines appear to misunderstand each other on such a fundamental issue. But even within each profession, opinions are far from aligned.
Freelance science journalist Erin Biba was outspoken in her response to the poll. She said not showing sources their quotes is a hard rule in journalism, although she admitted there can be rare exceptions. But the onus is on the reporter to get the facts right. “We have to care about the facts, and we have to fact check ourselves, and we have to not be embarrassed to admit if we don’t get it,” Biba told me.
“Sending the story to the source to read it is an easy way out,” she added.
It must be acknowledged, of course, that some journalists do not have time to be as thorough as they would like. And even if the writer does their best, headlines produced by editors can turn a thoughtful, tempered article into a one-sided exaggeration. “These headlines are doing real damage,” Biba said. “There were scientists who said to me during this argument, ‘I’ve stopped speaking to journalists because of the factual inaccuracy of these click-bait headlines.’ And I could not blame them.”
Emily Conover, a writer for Science News, recommended scientists who are wary of the press do their own due diligence on the journalist and outlet before an interview. If past articles seem particularly sensational then perhaps the scientist should decline. For her part, Conover says she has a strict policy about not sharing copy with sources. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to be interviewed.
Veteran science writer Philip Ball was more sympathetic to the scientists. He wrote on his blog that his first priority was to get the science and the story right, and if that meant running quotes or text by sources, he was happy to do so. “Mistakes happen. But they don’t have to, or not so often, if the scientist gets to see the text,” he wrote.
Tellingly, many of the scientists who responded to the Twitter poll, upon being contacted for an interview for this story, either declined or insisted on communicating only via email, citing a mistrust of journalists. Those who did respond acknowledged that journalists should have editorial control over their articles and said they would not insist upon seeing quotes before publication. However, the researchers rightly pointed out that science can be complicated, and a single word can change the meaning or implication of a finding.
“I think in cases where journalists are not well-versed in the domains they’re covering, it’s often a really good idea for them to ask scientists to review what they’ve written for accuracy,” wrote Tal Yarkoni, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Science is hard, and it’s often easy to think that one understands enough about the big picture to avoid making serious mistakes, when in reality the devil really is in the details a huge proportion of the time.”
Matthew Huber, a professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University, told me that inaccuracies can slip in when journalists paraphrase rather than quote him. “Even under the best of circumstances it is very easy for two people to misunderstand each other. Therefore, from my point of view it’s in the best interest of everyone to have the opportunity to review the text,” he said. “Do I think scientists should have the opportunity to review it? Yes. Does that mean that I think scientists have to have final authority about what goes out? No.”
Jon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, pushed back against this view. He pointed out that even when a well-meaning journalist gets something wrong, the damage is being overstated, and that he had never met a scientist whose career had been tanked by a misleading quote or an inaccurate explanation of their research. In this regard, Foley said that many of his fellow scientists were being “shockingly naïve and kind of arrogant.”
“It’s as if scientists are saying, ‘Journalists are too dumb to get the science right, and so I have to check their work,’” Foley said.
This debate is far from new. In 2011, David Kroll raised the issue in a blog post for PLOS about an interview with former Chicago Tribune science writer Trine Tsouderos in which she admitted to showing sources quotes, paragraphs, and even full drafts as a form of fact checking. A thoughtful discussion ensued in the comments section (Kroll said a colleague referred to it as a “master class in science journalism”), with the consensus being that fact checking — preferably through verbal summaries — is acceptable and even encouraged to ensure accuracy, and on rare occasions text can be shared if the topic is particularly tricky, but wresting editorial control is a non-starter.
The conclusion fits with the policies of several publications, with some variation over whether text and quotes should be paraphrased or could sometimes be shared verbatim.
Editors at The Washington Post, Discover, and Nature told me that reporters are not allowed to share quotes, text, or drafts with sources before publication. However, all three encourage reporters to fact check their articles to ensure they are representing the science and the source accurately, primarily by summarizing material. Discover also uses official fact checkers for all print magazine stories.
STAT News says it does some general fact checking during the copy editing process, and that in some situations they do read back quotes or share short excerpts to verify accuracy. Undark, meanwhile, has formal fact checkers on staff who, among other things, verify the spirit of quotes — though they discourage writers from sending verbatim quotes and passages directly to sources. Scientific American’s policy was the most lenient. Former editor in chief John Rennie commented in the 2011 debate that the magazine would occasionally show sources copy if there were questions about precision. Current neuroscience editor Gary Stix (for whom I often write) agreed that showing a scientist the text is sometimes the only way to avoid errors in technical descriptions.
For his part, Jasmin wrote me that he “posted the poll after hearing conflicting accounts of what is supposed to happen after an interview. I’d heard experienced scientists say they had always been allowed to look at drafts, and I’d heard from journalists that their professional ethics explicitly forbade this.”
So how do we get the two professions on the same page?
Foley said media training would go a long way toward improving scientists’ view of journalists. A supportive press office at his old university and building personal relationships with reporters helped his understanding and appreciation of the field. On the journalists’ side, Biba said assuring scientists that their research is in good hands can help alleviate concerns. “Scientists just want to know that you give a shit,” she said. “That you respect them and you respect their work and that you’re not just trying to get the clicks.
“We have to remember,” she added, “that this is people’s livelihood.”
Dana Smith is a freelance science writer specializing in brains and bodies. She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Scientific American, Discover, and Fast Company, among others. In a previous life, she earned a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Cambridge. You can find more of her writing at danagsmith.com.