Science and the press
Some random thoughts. There’s lots on my twitter feed today about an article by Ananyo Bhattacharya (@Ananyo), the chief online editor of Nature, published online in the Guardian, about whether or not scientists should get to proof read articles about their work written by journalists. There seems to be a little bit of a fence being built with scientists on one side saying, “but journalists are a bit rubbish, they don’t understand our hard science, and they play up specific points that they feel make it all more exciting” and journalists on the other saying, “we’re good at writing interesting stories and explaining the relevant science in an informative manner, and we don’t need the direction of the players in the story; in some cases this could raise issues of conflict of interest.”
I’ve been quoted a few times in things like New Scientist (at least online) and in other publications like Chemistry World. I’ve never been asked for a quote for a national newspaper, but I have been close to work that has had a lot of press coverage, and the results are often pretty poor. One image of a 1800s microscope with a laser firing through it, in the Daily Record springs to mind…deary deary me. The issue is that when you are an expert and you allow a non-expert to write about your work, you will (almost by necessity) get something doesn’t look quite right. Imagine trying to explain your next conference talk to a bunch of 15 year olds: I think this is the challenge that journalists face every day – and they haven’t spent years making the measurements. I think journalists need to do their best to explain, need to be confident that they understand what the hell it is they are talking about, and try their very best not to make ‘cure for cancer’ type claims.
However my real concern with this is that it must extend beyond science to pretty much everything. I am fairly confident that if you run most of the stories in an average newspaper past people who are either close to the story, or are experts in the area of discussion that they would find faults and misrepresentations. Maybe scientists just have more time to sit around and moan about it – but I don;t think it’s a particularly special case in this regard. All journalists can really do is try and report the truth as they see it and give a balanced view of the issues. Based on the output and speed at which journalists must work, I am generally very impressed by the stories I read.
I have never asked to proof read any story I have been quoted in (although I think in most cases the journalists involved did ask me to look over it – I don’t think I had any need to make changes). I’m happy to keep it this way, and if I’m misrepresented, I guess I’ll just have to take it up after the fact.