Questions for Friday: Science and Journalism

1. What are some mistakes a journalist can make when covering a scientific story? What are the consequences for that field of science, the scientists interviewed, and for the journalist?

2. Two of the readings listed questions a journalist might ask a scientist to get an interesting and accurate story. Some of these were, “What was your reaction to the findings?” and “What does this finding mean for society?” What are some other questions you might want to ask a scientist to ensure you are reporting a story that is interesting, important, and accurate?

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About jillmatthijs

Program in the Environment major, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology minor.

4 Responses to “Questions for Friday: Science and Journalism”

  1. The relationship between the scientist and journalism community is special. Scientists do wonderful research and make life-changing discoveries that the world might never get a chance to learn about without the help of journalists to get the word out. Sure, they might not see eye to eye, the facts may not be perfectly displayed, there might be an extra twist in the story, but it’s all about getting people interested. Mistakes journalists sometime make could be a misinterpretation of a theory, idea, or method. I do think it is important to interview the experts and ask them more personal questions of how they originally got involved with their research. Also to inquire and get them to expand on what the impacts of their research could be. Being able to explain in Layman’s terms for the general public and why they should care about a certain new research finding.

    It was exciting to read about the baby mammoth article posted on ctools because I actually used to do research under Dr. Fisher in the museum of paleontology while here at the University of Michigan. I had the chance to make 3-D computer models of baby Lyuba’s rib cage back in 2010-2011 using the Ford Motor Company CT scan data. It was a great experience. At the time when we were working on Lyuba, Dr. Fisher was really excited to get a chance to look at Khroma and claimed that “they” were being secretive on their research. Something to remember as well is that science theories can also change, because at the time when I was working with Dr. Fisher, Khroma was thought to be a male mammoth. Ever since the realization that Khroma is a female there have been new theories and interpretation of their physical differences. The ultimate goal of his research is to better understand the evolution of mammoths and why they went extinct.

    With the help of journalists, funding is given to the sciences, and science is given to the people. Actually the whole reason I even had the chance to do research with the baby mammoths was because National Geographic had written an article about Lyuba, “the ice baby”, that I had read my senior year of high school and I thought was fascinating. Then when I was accepted to the UROP program and was browsing through the research project abstracts I came across Lyuba’s name and I knew that would be an exciting project. So, I “geeked” out like a fan girl when I first met Dr. Fisher to join the project. And I still consider it to be one of the best and most interesting experiences I have had while at the University of Michigan. This probably wouldn’t have been possible without reading that National Geographic Magazine and it’s very possible my future studies and where I’m at in my life could’ve turned out very differently. So, don’t let anyone tell you that journalism and science don’t impact lives, because they do.

  2. The two articles I am referring to are 1) A Guide for Scientists on Giving Comments to Journalists (http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/22/a-guide-for-scientists-on-giving-comments-to-journalists/) and 2) What Makes a Good Science Writer (http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/scholarcast/what_makes_a_good_science). In addition to the 2 questions above… Is there anything in these two articles that you do not agree with?

  3. I’m not sure I would say that I’m in disagreement with either – I might lean towards the approach of the national geographic article’s advice because it approaches the interview objectively, generally a better way to deal with a science based writing assignment. That would, of course, depend on the specifics of the subject. Neither article gave horrible advice. Both addressed making the work discussed relevant and interesting to the reader, and adjusting technical jargon as necessary. After those two concerns, wouldn’t the rest fall to the flow of the interview process itself? Bear with me, folks… I’m admittedly way out of my league, here…

  4. The article “A Guide for Scientists on Giving Comments to Journalists” was very insightful and seemed to make sense to me. Ed Yong is trying to make sure that scientists do not give banal quotes that do not give the story any punch. Scientists may not want to anger others, so he/she may be hesitant to bash an article publicly. But I agree with Yong in his statement that “critical comments are probably the most useful variety we get”. In order to get this out of a scientist, some questions that could be asked are:
    Can this strategy/technique be realistically applied? Did the study overlook anything?

    And even if he thought this was positive, some questions are:
    Did this study do something that hasn’t been attempted before?
    Can this new technique be applied in any other situations? (For example, maybe if a new technique for treating a colon cancer is discovered, can this treatment work for other types of cancers?

    On the other hand, it may be easy for a science journalist to slip up. I think that, once the material is understood, the hardest part for a journalist is to make it sound interesting and convey it in an understandable way to readers. In doing so, a scientist may be mad because the journalist may overlook some important parts of a study in order to make it sound interesting. And oftentimes, more people will read the journalist’s article than will read the scientific article itself. This may lead to unnecessary criticism of scientists, and a misguided audience trying to comment on something they truly don’t understand. But while it may be easy to slip up as a scientific journalist, if it is done right, and the right questions are asked, the impact of the journalist’s work will be significant. Many more people will be able to understand the particular advance in science, and the article can create genuine, educated conversation.

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