Permit a late comment. Like all issue discussions, this one could be further informed by evidence. Communication researchers have studied the relationship between source fact checking and the accuracy of stories, and the patterns unearthed offer insights relevant to this debate. The tension and pressure for source fact checking has been around in science journalism for decades.
This story was cross-posted on an Indian website that aims to promote discussion between different stakeholders of science. This has led to a very lively discussion among scientists and science journalists of the country. Comparing those comments with the comment here, it is clear that Bob Berwyn is right in one of the earlier replies. There does seem to be some big differences across countries. The Indian science journalists seem to be pretty adamant in not allowing the scientists to have a look at the draft!!
For those interested, here is the link to the discussion there:
One thing that is not addressed is that while many scientists really are looking to prevent errors, there is a sizable minority that wants to manipulate the story, overthink/lengthen quotes, or just inflate the importance of their findings. I once shared part of a quote with a source for clarification. The source asked me to insert an entire paragraph from a previously published press release (!) into the story.
Also, scientists sometimes get uncomfortable hearing their research described in non-technical terms. I have run sentences by scientists who insist on adding technical language; when I ask what’s inaccurate with the lay language, they basically say that it’s not inaccurate, it just sounds weird. I still do fact-checking, but I make sure never to let scientists think that I am asking for approval. It took a few years to not let scientist sources hurt the story.
Last year, I called a doctor at a major Boston hospital who was listed as a contact on a journal article. He said he would agree to an interview but needed to review the story before it ran. He said that he does it routinely.
When I said I don’t allow prior review, he shouted: You people! You don’t want the truth. You just want the story.
I’ve been a science writer for 15+ years, often writing internally and thus collaborating closely with experts to develop content. When I do share copy with experts, they do find ways to improve accuracy — and I am grateful. I’ve never had anyone try to take editorial control. I feel that I learn from them about their work, and I can give them an opportunity to lean about how I construct a story. In the process, we develop mutual respect and good relationships. To me, that benefits the audience.
This is a fascinating article. I begun freelance science writing specifically because of the shocking mismatches between science and the reporting on it. It’s easy to say there’s no real fallout, but that’s only if you’re looking at a very specific metric.
I am primarily a disability activist, and spend a lot of my time in the disability community translating scientific research for people who have been scared by some bad reporting, or who have been treated poorly because of what other people have read. One of the biggest issues is the disconnect between what researchers mean by the phrase ‘in the mind’, how doctors interpret it, and how journalists use it. It goes from the paper stating quite clearly that a given condition is real, serious and has measurable physical effects to ‘people who say they have this are just making it up. Stop lying and think positively!’ It does actual harm, and could be avoided if journalists at least tried to check that they understood the base assumptions of a piece of research before publishing.
I don’t think scientists should have editorial control, but I do think journalists have to be aware of the responsibility of their work. It’s about more than just ‘I might lose some credibility if I report this badly’, especially when covering medical or environmental science.
I have to agree with Michael Marshall that appearances and perceptions of other scientists (peers) are important and can have repercussions. I totally disagree with Jon Foley when I see the statement “that he had never met a scientist whose career had been tanked by a misleading quote or an inaccurate explanation of their research.” Well Jon, you haven’t met me then. While i think the metric of a scientist’s career tanking is not an appropriate metric when it comes to accuracy in science-based journalism, I can tell you from my own experiences that in fact my career did take a downturn following a simple error by a journalist who chose to edit (omit) attribution of credit for research progress from an interview I agreed to. That error, based on an arbitrary choice by a ‘journalist’ incited bad blood among colleagues (and friends) which persists to this day. I happen to know the ‘journalist’, and i use the term loosely in this instance, was let go from employment at the trade journal where he had worked as a consequence. A simple read by me prior to publication could have altered all of this with a single sentence (which i emphasized multiple times during the interview), but otherwise led to suspicion and retributions in funding later on based upon inaccurate information. Since then I am reluctant to be interviewed by journalists although I have had a couple very positive experiences with more seasoned journalists since that episode. Scientists don’t need to be the final arbiters of what is in or out of an article, but a quick review can avoid careless and costly mistakes on both sides.
Interesting differences around the world. In Europe, many scientists assume they will have a chance to review sections of stories using their quotes before publication. Good press officers help in this situation, when they know the different expectations in different countries.
I was just about to say the same thing: here in the Netherlands it is not unusual for scientists to get the opportunity to read part of the interview beforehand, as a factual check. So this is not such a heated discussion here. That said, I do recognize a lot of other observations made in this piece.
Michael Marshall This is not nearly so much about free speech as it is about factual accuracy. Many scientists are reluctant to be interviewed for articles in the popular press because previous experience has shown them how careless journalists, even those who supposedly specialize in popularizing science, can be with facts.
The problem isn’t so much how the average reader will respond, as often they don’t have enough background to realize when facts have been omitted or twisted beyond recognition. The problem is how the errant article makes a scientist appear to his or her peers. Peer reputation is everything in science, and when a sloppily reported article read literally makes the interviewed scientist appear as if he is making a claim his peers know to be ridiculous there is no immediate remedy. Did she actually say that! Was it a reporting error? Peers make all sorts of value judgments that affect a scientist’s career, grant application reviews, peer reviews of publications and so on. Appearing to be ridiculous in a popular press article is not a small thing. It eventually gets straightened out but never completely. The article with the errant facts lives on separate from whatever subsequent corrections are offered, to be wondered about by future readers.
We all in principle agree that more communications about science in the popular literature would be a good thing. We all know that increasing science literacy is desirable. But no one wants to be at the mercy of a confused journalist where their reputation with peers is at stake. Allowing an interviewed scientist to look over an article to check for accuracy would alleviate this problem.
(actually, more like +1.000)
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