Scientific Journalism: How to Separate Fact from Fiction

In this piece written by Anna Clark for the Columbia Journalism Review, the author describes three methods to get to the truth behind scientific journalism. She first explains the main issue many people have with scientific journalism: how to identify which articles to trust for factual information. To do this, the author presents a real example of how two reports can be contradictory, yet still be true. This was done through explaining the debate behind the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous, where the same scientific report was used to back two very different claims on how effective AA actually is for sufferers. She then explains her three methods of how to identify what really is true: looking for broad, sweeping claims, looking for strong pieces of evidence, and finally the flexibility to change what you believe as new information becomes public.

I thought this was a fantastic article due to the way the information was presented. The author employed a “show don’t tell” strategy right in the beginning by utilizing a real example that many readers know. In my opinion, her article was practical by giving readers methods to properly identify inaccurate reports, as well as warnings that science itself is an extremely difficult subject to report on due to its complexity and tendency to switch back and forth on a particular issue.

However, I did feel the author did not write the most effective nut graph. This part of the article lacked statistics about the issue and did not really compel me to continue reading.

How did everyone else feel about the article? Did you think the kicker and the lede were strong enough? What other points of weakness can you find within the piece?

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7 Responses to “Scientific Journalism: How to Separate Fact from Fiction”

  1. Instead of saying that the nut graph is ineffective, I would say that the lede is not very effective. The first paragraph begins by diving right into the issue of science versus journalism whereas the second paragraph gives a background to Alcoholics Anonymous. While this may not be full of statistics, I think it gives a good background to the program and why it is the one they chose to study.
    I like the paragraph than began with, “The debate to the 12-step program is not new,” and went on to give examples of other contradictory claims made by scientists and journalists. I think this brought perspective to the article and put the issue into a broader sense with a fluid transition. Additionally, I like how they bolded the overarching themes/tips and then gave a deeper explanation following. This made the article easy to follow.
    Honestly, I think the quote by Roush right before the kicker should have been the end of the article and the last paragraph be eliminated. This quote is powerful and would have been a more effective kicker, in my opinion.

  2. I agree with Hallie that I think the lede could be improved. While I think that AA is a great example to use in this article, I think the lede is too long and went into too much detail considering it is not the main focus of the article.

    I also really appreciated that the article included a lot of examples that were easily applicable to the real world, like her examples of sweeping claims (“eat meat” vs. “don’t eat meat”) or what types of articles are most likely to catch the readers eye on a social media page. The layout of the article, organized by the three subheadings, made it very easy to follow. These aspects of the article made it accessible to a wide audience.

  3. I’m going to disagree with the first two comments and say that I believe the lede is quite strong. While I typically don’t love when an article begins with a question, I think this first paragraph summarizes the topic of the article in a clear, concise way – and frames it with the example of the AA debate.

    Additionally, I thought the author made good use of quotes from experts. Not only did she get follow-up quotes from the authors of the Atlantic and New York Magazine articles, responding to the other’s critiques, but she pulled in a journalism expert and MIT professor for additional analysis. The article as a whole gains credibility because of these well-selected quotes.

    One small critique of this article: I did not like the author’s use of “beautifully written” and “thoughtful” to describe the competing AA analyses. I felt that these adjectives introduced opinion and subjectivity, and they felt out of place with the evidence-based, factual tone of the rest of the article.

  4. I agree with Kelly. The lede really does a good job of summing up and calling into question the rest of the article. I also really like the way that quotes are used. The nut graph does a good job of showing what one author writes about the positive aspects of AA and another author writes about the negative aspects. Quotes are used to contradict each other and make the reader confused. Once the reader is confused then they will want to know the 3 steps for understanding science journalism.

    The organization with the three subheadings as the 3 ways for understanding are my favorite part about this article. It keeps the reader focused. Had the author not had subheadings then the article would be a confusing mess to read.

    My one critique is that the author doesn’t sum up the three pieces of understanding. She leaves the reader without a good kicker.

  5. I agree with most of your points. I think the article does a very good job showing all the nuances that go into scientific journalism. The author really sheds light about the dangers of taking something at face value without further diving into the legitimacy of evidence. I think the author’s nut graph was to the point and concise. She provided examples, statistics, and individual cases to further her point on the need to think about scientific articles more critically. The lede really helped to introduce the point she was trying to drive home as well. A vital point I think that she makes is to avoid widespread claims that attempt to simplify science and complexity of the issue being discussed.

    Overall I thought the articles was very good. The author was straight to the point and the list format made it easy to address the problem that are prevalent in scientific journalism today.

  6. I agree that the nut graph was constructed properly and provided helpful quotes and statistics. The fact that the nut graph was able to be broken down into the three main points of the article helped provide a fluid transition between the information. Each tip was elaborated on enough to keep it short and straight forward. I do agree that the lede was a little bit long, but it does provide a solid background on the purpose of the article. I like that the author provided information on the difference between scientific journalism vs science itself, as well as how the are similar and why that plays such an important role in understanding those types of journals.

  7. I found this article very intriguing and easy to identify with because I often find it difficult to make decisions about scientific information; many times I will argue both sides in a discussion because it allows me to gather more information from others who might have stronger opinions about the issue than I do. Hearing more narratives and different arguments with evidence to support them is highly interesting and so I appreciate how this article explained that keeping up can be a rigorous process but that it is interesting.
    I agree with Kelly and Andrew that the lede is quite effective. By presenting the idea that journalists disagree about the same evidences, the article made me think momentarily, “yeah so why should I keep reading,” but then it continues to empathize with the reader and gives an allure that some of these anxieties about how to understand science could be subdued by suggestions in this article.
    I agree with Hallie about the quote before the kicker; it would serve the article better. I think that it is more provoking and urges the reader to go and search about different scientific claims and evidences that they may have never questioned or always had an inkling that their knowledge was incomplete. Noting that “[science] is a self-correcting search for truth” gives the reader a point of connection between science and their life in general. We all are trying to walk paths to become our best selves and we behave in a manner that aligns with the beliefs that we have developed through observation of evidences and narratives; in the end we all hope that we have succeeded in living a fulfilling life in one way or another but almost no one believes they did it the best way. Rather there is some contention, just like scientific theories.

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