Reporting Scientific Research

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.

From Image Editor

From Image Editor

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:

  1.  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.
  2. Don’t leave out the science – Mention methods of the science so readers can better follow the information.
  3. Don’t get the science wrong – Always have your interpretation checked out by someone more scientifically inclined.
  4. Don’t get stuck in the weeds – Avoid jargon and get to the point.
  5. It’s OK to challenge an expert  – “You’re loyalty lies with the public, not the scientist.”
  6. Make sure you get a second opinion – Look at other expert’s opinions on the results of the research.
  7. Don’t keep saying how dumb you are  – “Do your homework and ask smart questions.”
  8. Don’t oversell research outcomes – Sensationalism looks bad on the reporter, the research, and the researchers.
  9. There may not be an “other side” to the story  – “Learn which experts and theories are credible and take a stand for good science.”
  10. 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. 

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6 responses to “Reporting Scientific Research

  1. I’ve always been really intimidated by writing more technical or science-related stories, but I think these tips are really great and could really help guide journalists in the right direction. There’s a perception that journalists just can’t do science, so I like the encouraging idea that you just have to do some research and a little extra learning. Overall, it’s a journalist’s job and privilege to be able to write about a whole array of subjects and learn something each time.

    However, at the same time, I agree that it’s important to realize that there are experts journalists need to consult. In my personal experience, you won’t look stupid of you ask the right questions of the right people until you make sure you understand the information and can clearly convey it to others. This philosophy, and a lot of these tips, don’t apply to just science writing, but any story with a difficult topic that a journalist may tackle.

    • I agree that a lot of these tips apply outside of just science journalism writing. Journalists just must remember to generalize all their research tactics outside of their comfort topics.

  2. I agree, at times science terrifies me. I like the tip that says we shouldn’t say we are dumb. I know I’ve had articles and even research papers before that I’ve though I can’t complete because I’m not a science person. In reality though, if I do my research I can understand the basics of things and since readers are only looking to understand basics I think it’s ok for us to admit that we aren’t experts in everything. Usually as journalists we have that one area that we know the most about and really love writing about, but we should be prepared to tackle any subject that comes our way. If we do our research and make sure to get accurate sources, I don’t think we should be afraid to take on writing about science.

    • I think one of the most important things to remember when tackling new topics while writing is to be positive versus calling yourself dumb. If you don’t know anything about the topic it doesn’t mean you’re dumb, it just means you have to research just like any other topic. So I agree, journalists shouldn’t be afraid.

  3. I think the Poynter piece makes a good point that not just any expert will do when writing an article on science or a technical piece. It is important the experts are well respected individuals with significant writing work and if possible someone who has been relied upon by other sources. A good resource that I have used before is ProfNet (http://www.prnewswire.com/profnet/). It allows journalists to connect with professionals and get the resources they need from all across the nation.

  4. Raquel Rivera

    Writing/ reporting on anything honestly terrifies me! What you say matters and people take it seriously. The claim she made, to me, was obviously very wrong, but to her, at the time she was writing, seemed totally valid. Are we as writers blind when re read our articles? Because we have read it so many times do we just not hear those types of mistakes? Publishing articles about scientific research seems to be very tricky because you don’t want to generalize or make an assumption and it be wrong.
    I took a scientific methods writing class and it really helped with what to make sure you include, how to phrase things and present research in a way readers will understand and can draw their own conclusion from.

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