Is scientific journalism sacrificing integrity for headlines?
Writer: Madeleine Throssell
Editor: Dan Jacobson
Artist: Mei-Ann Sim
‘Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump for President’: A story written in July 2016 by website WTOE 5 News was later debunked but had 960,000 facebook engagements before then. With the rise of lower-quality journalism including ‘click-bait’, there is an ever-increasing risk of real news being drowned out by sometimes misleading and scare-mongering articles. This is particularly important when considering science journalism, as incorrect information can be presented with undue certainty.
In retaliation, scientists, journalists, and healthcare professionals are creating outlets such as The Conversation and podcasts for factual but scrutinised work in a way that can be understood by academics and other interested individuals. While this does help to counteract some of the misinformation being presented, the importance of science journalism has never been so clear.
Being a science student myself, I am no stranger to the sometimes-convoluted ways research papers can refer to both their methods and results. While this could be a result of scientists aiming to use the most accurate language to describe their work, all this appears to cause confusion when other scientists are trying to understand exactly how the results were produced. Furthermore, this defeats the idea of presenting research in a concise way often encouraged throughout a young scientist’s career, but which seems to lack importance once careers have been established.
In my opinion, there is no way forward for scientists and researchers who are unable to communicate their work. As argued in research by Daniel Oppenheimer in 2006, using less jargon and clear concise writing makes you appear smarter, likely because you’re effectively communicating your ideas. Gone are the days where one can assume that your work will speak for itself, and if you truly hope for your work to have an impact on wider aims for your area of research you must look to teach both your colleagues as well as upcoming scientists. Unfortunately as mentioned by Victoria Clayton, whilst multiple prestigious institutes, such as the Wellcome Trust, have mandated that their studies be open access, “they’ve given little attention to ensuring those studies include accessible writing” . Instead, this responsibility falls on individual academics, for which few are arguing or encouraging others to do so.
It can be easy, as an individual with a strong passion for science and its potential to improve lives, to assume that family, friends or colleagues will be either unable to understand or disinterested in scientific topics. These assumptions can result in vital conversations never leaving a lab, creating a cycle where individuals don’t believe that they are capable of understanding or critically evaluating science evidence, simply because it’s not spoken about as often as politics or human welfare. The idea that understanding science is reserved for those involved is dangerous to society – what is research if not the advancement of knowledge with the purpose of understanding ourselves, the world around us, and how to improve them?
An image from a video released by the government with the NHS to explain the planned steps for restriction lifting.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the large influx of information being communicated to the public from individuals talking with minimal (or any) scientific background posed a threat to the individuals themselves, but more significantly the ability of populations to work together to recover. The concerns raised sometimes resulted in individuals confirming each other’s distrust in research and academia, further escalating what might be considered extremist views and reducing their ability to consider evidence put forward to them. A study by Allington and colleagues found a correlation between social media use, belief in COVID-19 conspiracy stories and reduction in health protective behaviours. Suddenly, it became clear that people needed to understand why decisions were being made about their lives. The UK government began explaining scientific terms such as the reproduction number (R0) and presenting graphs showing rises and falls in cases hoping it would help people follow and respect their proposed guidelines.
But it didn’t stop there. Daytime television shows typically reserved for more casual stories such as home, gardening and food began to bring in professionals to air their opinions and advice on the news surrounding the virus. The impact of this is likely both positive and negative in that it helped dispel some of the unfounded opinions that were worrying their viewers, but may have also contributed to the overwhelming feeling of confusion, even causing or exaggerating post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
There is, however, a danger in merging journalism with science journalism. Typical, modern journalism aims to tell facts but also needs to grab a reader’s attention to allow an integration with popular news. This could result in a risk of exaggeration of the already present positive-results bias. Trials with significant results are more often published in higher impact journals than those without, and only 8.1% of failed clinical trials for pharmaceutical agents are published. Statistical analyses themselves allow for a certain number of false positives, hence reporting only positives in journalism will encourage this practice. To prevent this, it will be important as science journalism becomes more prominent that there is awareness of elements such as this and space for debate over studies to ensure clear representation of the field of science.
Science journalism is becoming increasingly present in our news, but there is a risk of its accuracy and respectability being diluted in order to attract headlines and discussion. While open discussion should be encouraged, this must include critical analysis of what is being presented to prevent repetition of large amounts of misinformation seen in the pandemic. There is no doubt that science communication is now inextricably linked with the impact of the work but as a community, there needs to be a focus on ways to ensure its correct use.