I haven’t seen the movie Babe in years, but there is one part of the piglet’s story that has stuck with me. Early in the film the heroic little ham is told that there is a certain order to life. There’s nothing an individual can do to change the role they have to play on the farm. Babe’s destiny to wind up as bacon is, as one of the film’s anthropomorphic mice squeaks at the beginning of one chapter, simply “The way things are.”
“The way things are” could also serve as an alternate title to Ananyo Bhattacharya’s Guardian science blog op-ed “Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism.” Bhattacharya, the chief online editor for Nature, presents a laundry list of common complaints he has received from scientists about press coverage of their work. Bhattacharya’s response to each seems to boil down to “Deal with it.”
In some cases, this is the proper reaction. Some scientists might not like the fact that journalists are obliged to interview outside researchers for second, third, and fourth opinions about new findings, Bhattacharya notes, but that is part of what separates responsible journalism from university-generated press releases. If journalists uncritically repeated the conclusions of new papers, then they would only be science cheerleaders and would fail at their task of responsibly communicating science news to the public. And Bhattacharya is also entirely correct when he says that mistakes in news reports are inevitable. We must strive to get things right, but, when we don’t, at least we have the option of issuing an update or correction (especially in an age when so much science news is disseminated online).
But, in other ways, Bhattacharya’s editorial is a defense of a journalistic status quo that I believe does a disservice to both scientists and the public. Several points in the list of nine defend items of contention which often make scientists and responsible journalists alike send their foreheads careening towards their desks. Hyperbolic headlines, a tabloid on research, and the popular “inverted pyramid” storytelling style are all aspects of science reporting that are not going anywhere, Bhattacharya says.
Let me get something out of the way before digging into Bhattacharya’s post. No one is well-served by the hackneyed suppositions that all journalists are irresponsible know-nothings who only sensationalize science stories, or that all scientists are bitter cranks who are utterly incapable of communicating effectively with the public. (While I agree with some aspects of Pete Rowley’s response to Bhattacharya’s post, for example, I wholeheartedly disagree with Rowley’s assertion that “Science journalism is completely failing to communicate science.” And, as Ed Yong has illustrated, finger-pointing doesn’t do anything but generate black eyes.) Anyone who still buys into these stereotypes can do us all a favor by promptly shutting the hell up. There are excellent science journalists who are both responsible reporters and skilled writers – my colleagues Maryn McKenna and David Dobbs here on WIRED are two prime examples. And the proliferation of science blogs has allowed researchers to directly engage the public and even alter the news cycle (e.g. Rosie Redfield’s refutation of #arseniclife on her blog). Both journalists and scientists are participating in a changing science communication ecosystem which has the potential to significantly improve the dissemination of science news to the public. Cooperation, rather than competition, will benefit scientists and journalists alike.
That’s why I was taken aback by Bhattacharya’s post. During a time when journalists and science writers have a diversity of storytelling tools within easy reach, and there is more need than ever to provide a sense of how science works, he casts science news as short, 300-700 word pieces that follow the typical format of Eye-Grabbing Headline + Sensational Hook + Sparse Details + Outside Quote – a style applied to whatever big discoveries are announced in a given week. I would like to think that there’s more to science journalism than this. We need in-depth articles about ongoing debates and unanswered questions, as well as profiles of researchers and other forms of science journalism that go beyond “Here’s what’s new this week” reporting. (The Open Notebook is a wonderful resource for science fans thirsty for deeper journalistic coverage and the “story behind the best science stories.”)
But let’s run with the aspect of science news Bhattacharya is focused on – the day-to-day reporting of new research, typically of papers that appear in Science, Nature, PNAS, and other high-profile publications. (Full Disclosure: I have written two such stories for Nature News in the past.) This is the stuff that usually frustrates scientists, science writers, and other science fans. Despite common grievances about hyperbole and inaccuracy in this coverage, though, Bhattacharya says “responding to these criticisms by changing what we do would do nothing to improve the coverage of science.”
First up; the famous inverted pyramid model – the method of stating the big conclusion up front and then adding more context as the piece moves along. This is why just about any short science news story you’re going to see is going to have a hook at the top, a section about who did what and where, how the study relates to previous findings, and then a quote from a researcher unaffiliated with the new study. I’ve written for news sources that require a strict adherence to this format, and it’s the way things are generally done when information has to be conveyed quickly. There are other storytelling methods, no doubt about that, but, when faced with a limit of 700 words or less, there’s virtually no time to lead your reader through a more circuitous narrative even if you have the option of doing so.
There’s nothing wrong with this model per se, but it does become problematic when everyone is doing the same thing and therefore generating almost the same story. Not only are science news sources picking many of the same stories from widely-distributed press packages sent out each week, but the adherence to the inverted pyramid results in near identical coverage, especially when reporters draw quotes directly from press releases. (See the bombastic reports about the mythical Triassic Kraken.) Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong about the inverted pyramid, but, when combined with other conventions, science reporting can seem copycat and stale.
Headlines are a more aggravating issue. While Bhattacharya rightly notes that the purpose of a headline is to “to pique the interest of readers without lying”, what constitutes a lie or represents an overreach of the evidence is a stickier point. Within my chosen specialty of paleontology, especially, there’s no shortage of facepalm-worthy titles. There were two that made me cringe during this week alone. Discovery News ran the sensational “Science Fiction-Like Predator Terrorized Paleozoic Brazil” about a study which emphasized the importance of a newly-found fossil creature for prehistoric biogeography rather than the animal’s ferocity, and LiveScience posted a story titled “Lemur-Like Toes Complicate Human Lineage”, in reference to a paper about a creature that has been known to be more closely related to lemurs than to us for decades and has nothing to do with human ancestry.
Are such headlines outright lies? No. But they are misleading, and if we’re arguing that reader attention spans are so limited that we need to present conclusions up front then accurate headlines are even more important. I recognize that we’re not going to see much provisional or guarded language in headlines, but, within the subset of science news I regularly encounter, there is too much reliance on bad puns and sensational claims unfettered by evidence. And I’m sorry to say that some pieces I have written have suffered from this trend. A short article I wrote for ScienceNOW about a long-fanged prehistoric mammal carried the headline “Meet the Saber-Toothed Squirrel” even though the critter was not, in fact, a squirrel. I explained that the animal was not actually a squirrel in the space I had, but I still feel squicky about the inaccuracy of the title.
Bad headlines seem all the worse when a study is sensationalized or necessary information is left out. In paleontology news, especially, there is a major emphasis on “nature red in tooth and claw” or the bizarre nature of prehistoric creatures. (See Matt van Rooijen’s “Prehistoric Reconstruction Kitteh” for a visual summation of how fossil creatures are often presented by documentaries and news stories.) When the horned dinosaurs Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops were described two years ago, for example, the Guardian ran the headline “Horniest dinosaur ever discovered – Kosmoceratops – found in Utah.” A little cutesy for my taste, but not godawful. What seemed strange to me, however, was that one of the main conclusions of the paper which described the dinosaurs was left out. Part of the point of the study was to illustrate that dinosaurs on the western subcontinent of Laramidia were isolated from dinosaurs elsewhere, and this isolation resulted in a unique dinosaur fauna. The bizarre appearance of Kosmoceratops was an obvious hook for the story, but I didn’t understand why the larger implications of the dinosaur’s discovery were left out.
Are we really doing our jobs if we fail to report on the main implications of new research in favor of articles that simply say “Look how weird/ferocious/gigantic this thing is”? Reporters are not obliged to write about every wrinkle of a new paper – interested readers can hopefully track down a copy of the paper if they want more – but I am often puzzled when the primary focus of research is overlooked to emphasize more trivial aspects of the science.
Caveats are also important, especially regarding new areas of research where independent confirmation may take some time to acquire. The possibility that bits of degraded Tyrannosaurus soft-tissue may have been recovered is one example. In these instances, extra-careful reporting is essential, and extending the wordcount a bit is justified. Must we really cram everything into 500 word boxes with one-line quotes from different scientists? Some stories are well-suited to the popular, short, inverted-pyramid style, but controversies or spectacular new claims, especially, should receive a bit more care. The trouble is that there is a huge emphasis on publishing articles in a short format right when embargoes lift. Wait too long – as little as a day – and it may be more difficult to sell a story which includes deeper context.
We could go back and forth about any of these points. There are strong stories and weak ones. Reporters who are more responsible and those who are less. Scientists who sensationalize and those who do not. As the ever-wise Ed Yong points out, we can shout examples and counter-examples at each other all we want and not get anywhere, especially since the people who we might identify as the worst perpetrators of inaccurate, hyperbolic dreck do not engage in the conversation. At a general level, at least, I imagine that Bhattacharya and I would find much to agree about regarding the necessities of balancing accuracy with accessibility and entertainment.
But there was one aspect of Bhattacharya’s post that puzzled me enough to fuel this response (perhaps against my better judgment, since the general reaction on Twitter to this discussion has been “Oh, ffs, not scientists versus journalists AGAIN…”). In reference to why so many science news stories are so short, Bhattacharya responds that one driving factor is “respect for the readership. Editors want readers to return to their site and read their content.” Fair enough. How many people really read all the way through even short articles? On the web, especially, there’s a constant war for the reader’s attention. But shouldn’t we respect more than the reader’s time? What about respecting readers through a commitment to accuracy? Hyperbolic headlines and sensationalized stories are at odds with this sort of respect writers should have for readers.
A necessary respect for getting things right and including essential caveats is all the more important because of the way science news is disseminated now. Most often, readers are presented snapshots of single papers from a handful of high-profile journals. Stories and findings that add context don’t often make the cut – more than once I have had an editor tell me “No” about a story I thought acted as a necessary update to previous studies, but which they saw as an incremental finding that was not exciting enough to warrant coverage. News stories are often presented as isolated units that explain the products of science without providing insight into the process of science or how ideas may have changed. New research is going to question, test, and often refute what was previously supposed, and it is therefore important to provide the proper context for stories lest it seem that science is jumping from one certainty to the next without explanation as to why. Respect for our readers also means that we should not immediately assume that they can’t handle a little background or an explanation of a technical concept.
All of which is to say, why can’t we change science reporting? There are conventions and traditions, but I think science journalism can be more flexible than Bhattacharya appears to suggest. There will always be a need for short, sharp science stories about new discoveries, but I see no reason why can’t we experiment with slightly longer wordcounts or try to come up with snappy, accurate headlines instead of reaching for the “Big Book of Science Puns” half the time. House formats and the particular visions of editors play into this, too. The reporter isn’t the only person involved in the process. Still, given the space the internet provides and all the various tools at our disposal, why not experiment to see if science reporting can evolve? The way things are doesn’t have to be the way things stay.
Top Image: A dinosaurian interpretation of a scientist (left) enraged at a journalist (right) for poor reporting. Or maybe it’s just two Tyrannosaurus facing off. Up to you. Photographed at the Museum of Ancient Life by the author.