Saturday, August 7, 2010

Talking to Journalists

I have read so many stories of the pitfalls of talking to journalists that I'm glad I'm not really in a position to do so. A few years back, there was a guy working for a small paper in Newport who had, in several stories, really misunderstood coast range geology. I offered to take him on a day trip up Marys Peak, where you can see the best possible transect of the rock sequence, from sea-floor basalts through a couple of sedimentary units, and a gabbroic sill. He got the geo more or less right, but described me as a professor in geology, even though he knew perfectly well I worked for science education, and I had taken pains to explain the difference between a professor and an instructor.


You'd think "professional" writers would understand that words have meanings, and they matter. Numerous examples of this come up in the science blogs I read, and the sheer incompetence of people who get paid for writing has long ceased to surprise me. Yet another issue with science journalism was described in Swans on Tea earlier:
What is so hard about these caveats and disclaimers scientists take for granted, and come up over and over again, when discussing science results? Is the collective journalistic memory so short that scientists (or their lawyers) have to start reading a statement before they ever make a comment?

Please understand that the following result is preliminary and should not be taken as the final word. For anyone unfamiliar with the field, an effort must be made on the reader’s part to see where this fits in with the prevailing models of the day. There is a chance that it could be wrong or have only limited applicability to broader problems being investigated by other research teams. Further investigation may confirm our findings, or show that our results were anomalous or contained errors.

Scientists already know this. Journalist should know this.
I think this is a fine idea. This statement should be printed up on cards, and when talking to journalists, hand them a copy along with your business card.

1 comment:

Dana Hunter said...

If more journalists could get that across, the public wouldn't have such a hard time with science. I know this stuff is confusing - I'm frequently confused, meself - but you'd think that it wouldn't take that much effort when talking directly to a scientist to get basic facts right and ask some clarifying questions. Gah.

You've inspired two things, here, for which I thank you. One, I think I feel a post coming. Two, I think I'd better get hired as a journalist so I can talk you into taking me up Mary's Peak and get us paid for it! Drooling now. ;-)