No news is bad news

To respect science, we must be brave enough to question it — and both journalists and scientists need to get on board. 

 
 Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

 

This is an editorial for Issue 17 by Lateral editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan, who is very much not a journalist, although he does know a bunch.

Their methods may differ, but scientists and journalists both seek the truth.

Lateral is not strictly a journalistic enterprise. But our focus on the intertwined nature of science and the rest of society necessarily leads us to champion scientific journalism as an important connection between researchers and the wider public. And it’s a connection that is sorely lacking — many newspapers don’t have even one dedicated science journalist, and when they do, their time is often split between science and potentially “science-lite” topics such as health and technology.

Science, as an important human endeavour, deserves to be examined and explored in the mainstream media in much the same way as politics, business and international affairs. It’s not enough for the public’s exposure to science to be limited to the communication of scientific information — although that has a big role in keeping science in everyone’s lives, it can neglect the ways the scientific community behaves and interacts with other societal institutions.

Researchers often complain about inaccurate or hyperbolic reporting of their work in the media, with medical science reporting receiving most of their ire. While there are probably many causes, much of this can be chalked up to a lack of adequate journalism — good science journalists avoid uncritically copying claims from press releases and put research in an accurate and understandable context. 

Science journalism can connect science to politics, highlighting where science would inform political choices, including when politicians neglect or ignore scientific information. It can also examine the scientific community itself and investigate scandals, fraud, large-scale issues with research and the relationship between science and industry. Science without this journalism is missing one of the forces keeping it in check from the outside.

Unsurprisingly, there are many fantastic examples of science journalism, particularly online, that clearly demonstrate its value to both scientists and the public. Michael Slezak, Guardian Australia’s environment reporter, does consistently great work, such as exposing flaws in Australia’s “response plan” for climate change and tracking the country’s carbon budget. The US science journalism publication Undark frequently and seamlessly combines science journalism and political journalism to explore issues like the Flint water crisis and stem cell research. Science Vs, a podcast by Australian science journalist Wendy Zukerman, often tackles controversial topics such as the existence of the G-spot and the use of forensic science in famous murder cases.

Despite these successes and the necessity of science journalism, some scientists are wary of the role it can play examining scientific controversies, with tensions between the camps rising when scientists perceive journalists weighing in on scientific issues the former consider settled. Part of this tension has recently surfaced in Australia over stories reported on the ABC’s Catalyst, which was arguably the country’s only consistent source of science journalism on television before its entire production team was axed last month.

Precipitating the show’s fall from the Tuesday night lineup, Catalyst reporter Dr Maryanne Demasi filed two stories over the past three years with clear contentions against the scientific consensus on two different issues: the efficacy of taking statins, a common class of cholesterol medication, and the cancer risk of exposure to WiFi and mobile phone radiation. Responses from Australian scientists after each story aired were rightly damning, accusing Demasi of giving primetime exposure to unsupported ideas and less-than-credible researchers.

To many scientists, the Catalyst debacle must have felt like a worst-case scenario: a journalist going on TV and trying to convince the public that everyday technology and potentially life-saving drugs could have negative health consequences, all without credible evidence. Why did this journalist, trained as a scientist or not (Demasi has a PhD in medical science), feel like she had a say in what is and isn’t scientifically supported? Isn’t it scientists’ jobs to come to those sorts of conclusions, particularly current researchers in those fields?

Those questions led some (including myself, admittedly, for only a brief time) into a spiral of doubt over the role science journalists play inside and outside of the scientific community; critical examination of the merits of particular scientific ideas seemed like something that should be reserved for experts. It’s a tempting view — but ultimately a short-sighted one.

Michael Slezak, writing in the Guardian after Catalyst aired Demasi’s anti-WiFi episode, defended science journalism particularly persuasively against this sort of attack:

There is a lot of important, mainstream research that needs reporting — that should rightfully make up the bulk of science news. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an important role for journalists to poke around the edges.
Demasi, to her credit, tries to do this. But it is hard. Very hard. A journalist doing this needs to exercise extreme caution, and needs to have good judgment. But again, that’s not very different to the caution needed in any journalistic field – if you’re going to take-down something big, you better be very careful. Demasi’s biggest failure was simply not doing journalism well.

There will always be instances of bad science journalism, just as there will always be instances of bad political journalism, bad sports journalism and bad arts journalism. Minimising those instances should be the joint goal of the journalism and scientific communities — working together, we can probably sort something out.

But to do this, both sides need to be brave. Journalists need to bravely chase questions that might seem unpalatable, if the evidence indeed supports an unpopular view, but scientists need to bravely let journalists in on their work, respond for comments, help out with investigations — and trust that a good science journalist will come to a solid, scientifically supported conclusion. Without that trust, science would be in a bad place indeed.

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.