By Hali Ortega
The majority of journalists are not also scientists, but journalists do cover news developing out of scientific research. Often this leads to reporting not conveying correct information to readers, the one thing journalists do not want. These mistakes not only make journalists look incompetent but also degrades the scientific aims of the research.
David Freedman of Columbia Journal Review gives the example of New York Times Magazine writer Tara Parker-Pope. Freedman says that in an article titled “The Fat Trap” by Parker-Pope she, “…laid out the scientific evidence that maintaining weight loss is a nearly impossible task—something that, in the words of one obesity scientist she quotes, only “rare individuals” can accomplish.” Freedman remarks in response to Parker-Pope’s claim that, “Many, if not most, researchers and experts who work closely with the overweight and obese would pronounce [her] main thesis—that sustaining weight loss is nearly impossible—dead wrong, and misleading in a way that could seriously, if indirectly, damage the health of millions of people.”
In this case Parker-Pope only evaluates small amounts of research and ends up making an inaccurate conclusion. Barbara Berkeley a physician specialist in weight loss responded, “Scientific research needs to square with what we see in clinical practice. If it doesn’t, we should question its validity. “The Fat Trap” is an article that starts with a single, small research study and builds around it.” The point here being that one small study does not offer enough information to make the claim that weight loss is practically impossible.
These are the types of scientific reporting by journalists being published all the time. There are ways to avoid skewing research aims, being inaccurate, and drawing incorrect conclusions from scientific research in your reporting. The 10 biggest science reporting tips from Poynter’s Peter Iglinski are as follows:
- Don’t sap the very life out of the story – Don’t let the numbers and science consume you, rather focus on the excitement of the story.
- Don’t leave out the science – Mention methods of the science so readers can better follow the information.
- Don’t get the science wrong – Always have your interpretation checked out by someone more scientifically inclined.
- Don’t get stuck in the weeds – Avoid jargon and get to the point.
- It’s OK to challenge an expert – “You’re loyalty lies with the public, not the scientist.”
- Make sure you get a second opinion – Look at other expert’s opinions on the results of the research.
- Don’t keep saying how dumb you are – “Do your homework and ask smart questions.”
- Don’t oversell research outcomes – Sensationalism looks bad on the reporter, the research, and the researchers.
- There may not be an “other side” to the story – “Learn which experts and theories are credible and take a stand for good science.”
- Don’t rely on inadequate experts – Any expert will not work; they should be relevant to the topic at hand.
With these tips in mind you are already better prepared for tackling a scientific article. To further hone scientific writing skills check out the National Association of Science Writers, which offering guides, tips, and discussions. Taking a science writing class or scientific methods class will also better prepare you for science research article writing. Now get out there and learn something about nutrigenomics.