How to avoid “he-said-she-said” science journalism

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This post is written by a special guest – Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at Science Online 2010. I was delighted when Ivan accepted my invitation to follow up a recent Twitter exchange with a guest-post, and shocked that he even turned down my generous honorarium of some magic beans. Here, he expounds on the tricky issues of journalistic balance and how journalists can choose their sources to avoid “he-said-she-said” journalism. Over to him:

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The other day, a tweet by Maggie Koerth-Baker, a freelance science journalist in Minneapolis, caught my eye. In it, she bemoaned the fact that editors and producers often encourage their reporters to go find an “opposing viewpoint” to make a story balanced. She said her journalism school professors — she graduated in 2004 — always told her the same thing.

That troubled me.

I’ve been teaching medical journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Programsince 2002, and I taught a similar course at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism for three years. As I told Maggie and the othershaving the conversation on Twitter, I never tell my students to get “opposing viewpoint” but to get outside perspective — one that may agree with the study or the main idea being put forward by a source.

Koerth-Baker said she likedthat way of framing it, and evidently so did Ed Yong, so the idea for this guest post was born.

It’s easy to see why opposing viewpoints often rule the day. People like tension, and good journalists like skeptics. People who feel strongly about something are often media-savvy. They know how to give soundbites. They’re often telegenic — think Jenny McCarthy.

But I don’t have to tell you how this can lead to false balance. Others have written convincingly on this before, notably my NYU colleague Jay Rosen. In science and health reporting, you can end up with this.

Clearly, if the only sources you can find to “oppose” a study’s findings are from a scientific fringe, the best “opposing” viewpoint may be one that agrees!

However, just saying that isn’t always enough, especially when a reporter is on deadline. So here’s how it works, after which I’ll offer some tips on finding those sources.

Two recent examples: About a month ago, I wrote a story based on a study of whether Arcoxia — a cousin of Vioxx — could treat “Yom Kippur headache,” which something like 40 percent of observant Jews suffer every year.

Now, having written a weekly column in the Jewish newspaper The Forward ten years ago, I had some aces in the hole. The one I went to immediately was Edward Reichman, a triple threat: rabbi, emergency room doctor, and medical ethicist. As always, Reichman was happy to talk to me, and gave me some comments for the story. He thought the study was well-done and interesting — hardly an “opposing viewpoint,” but one that added important context for the study.

A few weeks ago, I found a study in Circulation that said maybe being religious wasn’t that good for your health after all. I can hear many readers rolling their eyes at the idea that we needed to study this, but there’s actually a small but significant literature on the subject, much of which says religious people tend to live longer.

The studies are hardly perfect, so when a study like the Circulation one appears, it seems worth reporting on. Basically, the authors drilled down into data to look at the specific link between “religiosity” and clogged arteries.

Since I had written about this for the Boston Globe, Salon, and — not surprisingly — The Forward, I knew the perfect source: Duke’s Harold G. Koenig, who has studied the potential religion-health link for decades. This time, Koenig gave me a scientific critique of the paper that you probably would consider an “opposing viewpoint.” Here’s my report.

But, you’re saying, of course it’s easy to find those sources when you’ve got more than a decade’s worth of reporting experience. So let’s say I had come to both stories as a novice. How would I have tracked down outside comment?

The first place I would have looked is in some of my favorite sentences in a study’s introduction — the ones that start something like “Previous studies have shown…” Like all of the good reporters I know, I have a healthy appreciation for the fact that research is an ongoing process. A study, or two, or 100, came before the one I’m reporting on. The nice thing about the medical literature is that authors cite those studies, and — imagine this — those studies have authors. (That’s another reason to always read papers you’re reporting on, instead of relying solely on press releases.)

Take Yom Kippur headache. There isn’t a huge literature on the subject, but it turns out the phenomenon was first described in a 1995 paper in Neurology. I could have called the authors of that study. (The paper also cited the Bible. Admittedly, it would have been tough to call the author of that “study.”)

(The only solid research on treating Yom Kippur headache — using Vioxx, before it was pulled from the market — was done by the same group that tried Arcoxia, so that wouldn’t exactly have been an “outside perspective.” Imagined interview: “Yes, this work is fantastic! It is some of the best I’ve seen on the subject. Well, second only to that study we already published.”)

Sometimes, of course, those studies don’t agree with the paper in your hand. Great — in that case, it’s probably appropriate to quote an outside source who happens to have an “opposing viewpoint.” That would have been the case if I had come to the Circulation paper on religion and health de novo. The paper dutifully noted the large body of literature that had found religious people tend to live longer, and cited more than 10 of those studies. Koenig’s name shows up.

If you strike out in the paper itself, go to Medline to find others who’ve written papers on the subject. I would have found this review of Yom Kippur headache, which wasn’t cited by the paper I was writing about.

Strike out there? Try specialty medical societies or foundations, many of whom have someone with a title of something like “vice president for research” who is highly qualified to read a paper for you and commentOne of the most helpful when I’ve been on deadline is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

A caveat: Groups like that have an agenda, if an obvious and transparent one. They want more funding to treat and cure their diseases. But they’re still excellent sources.

Sure, there’s Google, too, which is certainly useful. But these approaches have a much higher signal-to-noise ratio.

Other reporters tell me they often ask study authors whom else they could call for comment. That’s not a bad idea if you’re in a pinch on deadline, but for me it’s often a choice of last resort. As I tell my students, it’s like asking profile subjects for people to comment on their life or work. It’s just human nature to name people who are likely to be complimentary, and scientists are no exception.

The nice thing about the search for a source is that it also provides data. At the end of the day, if it’s hard to find a source that thinks a study is deeply flawed, it’s probably not deeply flawed. That knowledge informs how you write the story, and makes you more confident in quoting sources who think there’s something worth reporting.

There are other tips, of course, some of which I hope show up in comments on this post. I hope journalists don’t think I’m giving away any “trade secrets” here. But since I’m sure many someones taught me how to do this along the way — starting at my college paper — I don’t own the approach. To me, most of this is just common sense. And since I think part of the future of science and medical journalism is teaching its methods and principles to smart skeptical experts who aren’t full-time journalists — many of whom already know these techniques — I think this is a perfect forum for this kind of discussion.

Ivan Oransky is executive editor of Reuters Health and treasurer of the Association of Health Care Journalists. He also teaches medical journalism at NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. You can follow him on Twitter at @ivanoransky

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