Science in the Media: To Fact Check, or Not to Fact Check?

Photo by tecknare, used with permission

By: Rebecca Cerio

Science policy demands, at its very core, communication of scientific information.  Making sure that science is distributed to and understood by the people who need it, whether they be politicians or the public at large, is the interface where science policy meets science journalism.

Communicating science to the public can often be a challenge.  Science is a highly specialized, highly technical field, and science journalists often summarize the science involved in new findings for brevity, clarity, and that elusive “interestingness”.  However, there are always examples of editing gone too far:  experimental designs mangled, quotes cherry picked out of context, conclusions and significance misrepresented.  It’s easy for scientists to roll their eyes, shake their heads, and blame it on journalists who don’t understand science.

However, a recent discussion started by David Kroll on PLoS Blogs has pointed out that sometimes it’s the scientists who don’t understand journalism.

Two camps have emerged on this topic, as seen in the text and comments on Kroll’s original post and also exemplified in this commentary by Ananyo Bhattacharya, the chief online editor of Nature.

In one camp are the scientists.  Scientists’ main experiences have often been with scientific publishing, where everything is peer reviewed, properly qualified, and fact-checked to death.  Inaccurate media articles about science often strike them as embarrassing and/or frustrating.  After all, obviously the journalist didn’t understand the science and didn’t care enough about their article to fact-check it with the scientist they were interviewing.  This is often seen as a failing of the journalist and of the editor that let the article be published.

On the other side are the journalists, who argue from a completely different place.  In the comments on the Kroll post, George Johnson laid bare the crux of their argument,

The ethics that have been instilled in me over many years is that it is forbidden to show unpublished copy to a source and that getting approval for the speaker’s quotations is a violation of the professional standards of journalism.  [emphasis added]

The source has already given blanket approval to use anything she might say when she agreed to go on the record.  Nothing more is needed.  Also, journalists are there to take facts and turn them into a story for their audience.  They are under no obligation to write something that the source likes.  In fact, taking a finding and reporting it in a way that the scientist might disapprove of (for instance, quoting a vaccinologist in an anti-vaccine piece) is their right.  It’s what freedom of the press is all about.  Why should scientists get the right to fact-check (and possibly influence) stories when, say, politicians do not?  If journalists allowed their sources to influence their writing, that would inject the source’s bias into the piece.

Science journalist and popular blogger Ed Yong argued both sides of the issue in his reply to Kroll about fact-checking in science journalism,

The downside of doing this is that some people start asking for wholesale changes, tonal changes, or start going back on what they actually said (and meant).

The upside, and I think this is significant, is that while journalists can fact-check specific things, we don’t always know the ways in which we can screw up. Unknown unknowns, and all that. An innocuous choice of word can make a sentence completely wrong and it can take an expert’s eye to spot that. 

In a very real way, this entire debate is a value judgment between scientific freedom and journalistic freedom.  Scientists want the freedom to have their work reported accurately, while journalists want the freedom to interpret the facts and present a story without interference.  Everyone can agree that there is a balance to be struck.  Finding this balance will minimize the possibility for inaccurate and biased reporting and raise the bar for science writing.

Practical suggestions from all sides for finding this balance include going to an independent scientific source for fact-checking, allowing a source to fact-check only relevant portions of the copy, or simply being alert for and resistant to attempts to alter the article’s tone or conclusions in the source’s suggestions.  According to John Rennie‘s comment on Kroll’s post, the decision ultimately lies with the journalist.  His opinion?

Sources can ask for any changes they like. I’ll only make ones that I think are right for the story. If writers aren’t prepared to stare down their sources over that principle, they shouldn’t be sending sources anything.

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