Scientists and Journalists Square Off Over Covering Science and ‘Getting it Right’

Some scientists say they should have the right to review stories in which their work or words are covered prior to publication. Journalists disagree.

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 TRACKER
The Science Press Under the Microscope.

“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.”

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.


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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.

“It’s as if scientists are saying, ‘Journalists are too dumb to get the science right, and so I have to check their work.’”

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.”


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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.

“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.”

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.

Top visual: Malte Mueller via Getty
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11 comments / Join the Discussion

    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.

    Reply

    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:
    http://confluence.ias.ac.in/scientists-and-journalists-square-off-over-covering-science-and-getting-it-right/

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply
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