Disappearing The Science News

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I have some hope for a happy coexistence between blogs about science and older forms of media. I don’t think blogs will ever supplant newspapers and magazines, nor I do I think they’re killing them like a parasite destroying its host. In fact, blogs may be able to act as a new kind of quality-control mechanism. I know that not all my colleagues on the old-media side of the divide are so optimistic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a snootier distillation of their scorn than something Independent science editor Steve Connor wrote recently:

The sixth World Conference of Science Journalists is underway in London. I can’t say it’s going to change my life, as I missed out on the previous five, but I did notice that it has attracted the attention of a bunch of medics with strong views on the state of science journalism today.

“A few of us felt they were might [sic] not adequately address some of the key problems in their profession, which has deteriorated to the point where they present a serious danger to public health,” according to the Bad Science website of Dr Ben Goldacre, who is turning into the bête noir of science journalists. The medics met in a pub in London last night to explain why the “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly”. All three speakers are gainfully employed by the public sector so they don’t actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under. But they nevertheless condescended to offer some advice on the sort of “best practice guidelines” I should be following, for which I suppose I should be eternally grateful.

But their arrogance is not new. Medical doctors in particular have always had a lofty attitude to the media’s coverage of their profession, stemming no doubt from the God-like stance they take towards their patients. Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say their profession is broken, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly – not yet anyway.

Unfortunately, as Goldacre pointed out, Connor got the date wrong and didn’t bother to check to see if the other two speakers were medics. They’re not.

It’s certainly true that the mainstream media are under plenty of “pressures and financial constraints” these days. But that can’t be an excuse for lousy science reporting–ie, distorting new research, hyping findings way beyond what they support, or writing straight off of press releases. In fact, just the opposite: professional science writers should strive to be most excellent if they want people to continue to read them faithfully. And they have to toughen their hides enough to be able to handle criticism from scientists themselves. If those criticisms are wrong, show why. If they are on-target, science writers must swallow the bitter medicine.

This morning brought an example of how not to cope with these changes to the media landscape. On June 23 the Daily Telegraph‘s science correspondent Richard Alleyne wrote an article with the headline, “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists.”

Goldacre decided to call up the scientist who supposedly made this claim (I thought that’s what reporters do, not just bête noirs). She was furious at the distortion. Goldacre reports his conversation in a July 4 Bad Science post and in his column at the Guardian.

I decided to check out the original article. But I couldn’t find it. If you type in Alleyne and rape into the Telegraph’s search window, you get the story as the top results. Click on the story, and you are delivered to a url that looks promising:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/sciencenews/5603052/Women-who-dress-provocatively-more-likely-to-be-raped-claim-scientists.html

But once you get to that page, all you get to read is, “Sorry, we cannot find the page you are looking for.”

No correction. No clarification. No apology.

I then hunted around on some online news databases–the databases that future generations will turn to to research the news of our time. I can find Richard Alleyne’s stories at the Telegraph from both before and after the rape story. But not the rape story itself.

It has, as far as I can tell, been disappeared.

(I dropped a note to the Telegraph to ask what happened. I even found Richard Alleyne on Twitter and dropped him a note too. No response so far. I will post anything I receive.)

Clearly, the bête noirs are being listened to. And that is good. But pretending that the objects of their ire never existed? Mmm, not so good.

Update: Nepostistic hat tip to brother Ben, Internet archaeologist extraordinaire, who dredged up a copy of the full article on another blog, which compares it to the original press release. Not quite down the memory hole yet!

Update #2, July 22: Goldacre now tells us that on July 13 the Telegraph published a very odd correction:

Owing to an editing error, our report “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists” (June 23) wrongly stated that research presented at the recent BPS conference by Sophia Shaw found that women who drink alcohol are more likely to be raped. In fact, the research found the opposite. We apologise for our error. 

Wow. Speaking from my own experience, I can say it’s bad enough to have a newspaper run a correction on an article of mine for a misspelled name or a figure with an extra zero tacked on the end. But turning around the result of a study to its precise opposite–that’s truly embarrassing.

It is good that the Telegraph posted a correction. It’s odd that it took three weeks for them to do so, though–especially since Goldacre nailed them in the Guardian back on July 4, interviewing Sophie Shaw to show how wrong the article was. I have to agree with Goldacre that the correction, as stark as it is, actually only scratches the surface of all that was wrong with the story. At least, I think it does. I can’t actually read the original article on the Telegraph web site. As I blogged pre-swan-ride, the Telegraph had yanked the story, although they hadn’t yanked the title from its search engine results. (Screen grab) Now you can’t even find the title. So now the newspaper has published a correction to a story that, on the Internet at least, no longer exists.

I think that newspapers should not follow this example if they want to thrive in the 21st century. Newspapers will have to find ways to distinguish themselves from other sources of information online. While they may have to set aside some of the traditional defining features (like ink), there are many things that will translate well into the future. One of them is a clear, reliable paper trail. But to preserve that trail, newspapers will have to resist the urge to hit the delete key.