Science reporters, like many other beat journalists, are facing increasingly tough times. Even major outlets are slashing their newsrooms; laying off staff and demanding more output from those who remain. Partly as a result of this, many feel that science reporting has grown sloppier and more inaccurate as a whole over the course of the last decade.
The media's bungled handling of a single rogue scientist's extraordinarily dubious 'discovery' of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine is the most widely cited example of science journalism misfiring. But perhaps even more pernicious is the media's consistently baffled take on climate science, which has contributed to a plurality of Americans being misinformed--to this day--on the issue.
So what could be done to improve science journalism as it enters a difficult new phase in its evolution? Today, Slate is running a piece from Fiona Fox, the chief executive of the Science Media Centre, who argues that it's time to instate a set of general guidelines for the profession, which could be used to help deter editors and publishers from sensationalism and grandiosity. According to Fox, "A checklist would look something like the following:
- Every story on new research should include the sample size and highlight where it may be too small to draw general conclusions.
- Any increase in risk should be reported in absolute terms as well as percentages: For example, a "50 percent increase" in risk or a "doubling" of risk could merely mean an increase from 1 in 1,000 to 1.5 or 2 in 1,000.
- A story about medical research should provide a realistic time frame for the work's translation into a treatment or cure. It should emphasize what stage findings are at: If it is a small study in mice, it is just the beginning; if it's a huge clinical trial involving thousands of people, it is more significant.
- Stories about shocking findings should include the wider context: The first study to find something unusual is inevitably very preliminary; the 50th study to show the same thing may be justifiably alarming.
- Articles should mention where the story has come from: a conference lecture, an interview with a scientist, or a study in a peer-reviewed journal, for example.
- Another concern is the sometimes misguided application of "balance" in science reporting. An obsession with including both sides of a story has often obscured the fact that the weight of scientific evidence lies firmly on one side—witness some coverage of climate change and GM crops."
See the Slate piece (which originally ran in New Scientist) for a full and better explanation of why these tenets are so necessary to keeping the public well-informed on the latest scientific developments.
But it should be clear why I think that if those requisites were met for every story published or aired about climate change, the world would be a better place today--it would help discourage coverage of dubious work from climate skeptics (often who are funded by fossil fuels companies) by forcing writers and editors to note the triviality of their work in the context of the greater scientific community, it would rein in the sensationalism of overzealous pro-climate change stories that critics inevitably attack as melodramatic, and it would help do away with the he-said, she-said 'balance' mechanism that leads even the most venerable news outlets to quote long-discredited climate skeptics and naysayers in routine stories about global warming.
Note that these guidelines are in no way discriminatory--they apply the same rigorous standards across the board. And I would even add one: Anyone who quotes a scientist working in the private sector should identify where that scientist's funding comes from.
If successfully implemented, standards like these may be able to play a role in helping the public better understand science, and help discourage bad science and fringy skeptics. Unfortunately, that successful implementation depends on outlets who do science reporting playing ball--and it's hard to imagine, say, Fox News agreeing to the sort of standards that would deprive it of one of its favorite punching bags.