Opinion: Science journalism isn't easy, so why make it harder* by doing it wrong?

Request: If this blog teaches or inspires you, please Comment, Like & Share it! Thanks :)

Journalism is a process. It can come in a few flavours, depending on the chef. Basic journalism is reporting of factual events and topics. From there it can take on many forms, some good, some bad. Like all quality processes, getting it right the first time is typically the "cheapest" way. Some journalists flip burgers, some can create a Susur salad.

The basic goal of journalism is to correctly communicate a story to the reader. In a nutshell, the journalist gets a few sides of a topical story in an effort to report the facts and ensure balanced perspectives. Some stories require extensive research and fact checking. Quality journalists want to create stories that are impartial and informative. For the most part, it works well, but there can be exceptions. Sometimes scientific truth is lost in translation.

It seems with today's social media, journalists get it from all directions. It's always fun to troll a journalist, but when isn't it trolling? Journalists, I'm sure, seek feedback on their work, so they are faced with sifting through all the excellent trolling bits for the boring value-added constructive criticism. Journalists probably seek trusted sources for feedback. Scientists do, they use an open peer reviews system, but you have to prove what you "feedback" into the big "science machine".

Science journalism is not a form of official journalism, as evidenced by the lack of existence on Wikipedia, yet it exists. Journalists that write for science publications, typically scientists themselves, seem to have a different set of rules for a very different game. Sometimes the facts don't have words - the mysteries of science are sometimes hard to explain. In such cases, scientists try to translate these facts into a "story" we commoners can read.

Some science is easier to explain, but it's not easy. Science topics can sometimes be a very abstract and very new concept. On the simple thermometer of science reliability, biology and math are towards the top of the scale, and gravity seems to be the biggest zero degrees mark. In biology, we can see some natural processes with our naked eyes, in Physics you can shame any physicist for not being able to explain gravity. Try it, it's fun!

Brilliant minds are sometimes forced, by evil journalists, to provide an analogy to help explain her brilliant research. For her attempt to explain a very abstract physical and perhaps invisible natural fact uses a science story, like an analogy, to help explain something that technically has no official dictionary definition. Between gravity and a journalistic article on gravity, much can be lost in translation when a time machine is the best analogy in her "speaking to not-scientists" toolset. When scientists communicate with each other ideas are expressed very quickly, but these ideas must be slowed down for those not familiar with the specific research being discussed. A biologist reading a physics paper might not be familiar with dark energy. Great stories are good to have.

Let's take a step back, the journalist writes down a "scientist's story", but do they understand what the scientist said? Maybe, maybe not. In journalism, the journalist collects all the content and statements, fact checks, slaps it together, cuts and pastes, writes a story, proofreads, hands it off to an editor, then makes any changes by their deadline and delivers their story to be published. Mission accomplished.

Does the published content match the scientific truth? Good question! Sometimes yes - a great science journalist is scientifically literate. Sometimes no - something was lost in translation. Let me explain, if one little detail is changed, or omitted, it can change the entire true meaning of the science they are trying to communicate.

By altering, omitting, or misunderstanding, one single element of a scientists analogy, the journalist can render content incorrect, like changing a "yes" to a "no". Scientists sometimes have to struggle to create and explain these analogies in a way that is simple for people to understand. If a journalist isn't careful, they won't tell the right story. It happens often.

A fun analogy could be Kady changing a Justin Trudeau quote from Justin said "Yes!" to Justin said "No!" I'm sure Kady would get double-double roasted* on; The Agenda (Steve would enable non-roasting concerns to be rationally discussed), on The View Up Here, and CANADALAND. Other journalists, from all over the globe, would instantly be calling out a "what-what" Kady and posting Justin's video "Yes". #YesIsNotNo, Kady. Kady would be at an honest and genuine loss, "I swear on my journalism decoder-ring & badge colllection that Justin said "Yes", so I will print a correction, sorry Justin, and the world. Sorry."

See, journalism works! Journalism has the responsibility to correct any errors. If a scientist discovers that her research was misrepresented by Kady, a letter can fix it all. After the dust settles, a correction can be issued, the error or confusion explained, and all is good in Kady's world. 

However, the scientist must now deal with other scientists valid criticisms with respect to the article, jerks like myself, and a general public that still thinks "X" while "Y" is the true scientific reality. A correction printed weeks later can't mitigate this guaranteed social storm that will drench the scientist for what the journalist's error. So, how can journalists help themselves and scientists? Well, I have an idea, but, it breaks a "silent" rule in journalism.

Typically, after a journalist interviews and finalizes her story for publication, it isn't common or ethical to then allow the involved scientist to edit the editors' final edits. After the editor is finished checking and updates are made, the news team does not send it back to check for continuity, with the scientist, to ensure her "story" made it through the "journalism machine". With the many changes an article can face, changes happen. By changing a single word, the true science can be made false. What if journalists let the scientist approve continuity before publishing? 

During Canada's climate "news" journalism fiasco, journalists included climate "sceptics" to achieve journalistic " balance" in their stories. This is acceptable and fair, but, journalists should also be performing due diligence with scientific integrity. Journalists should always ask for recognized science that supports the opinions they cover. Climate change isn't easy to understand. Some say it's harder to understand than Einstein's Theory of Relativity, and those some are correct. Climate change is complex and journalists need to become literate to this reality that science writing can be tricky. 

When a journalist is covering a science story, she should also ask for supporting science. In the case of climate deniers, she would quickly discover that there is no credible refutation of the scientific consensus on climate, which she should publish, as well. The fact that science has evidence and climate deniers have no evidence seems like an important fact to omit in science journalism.

Do it, break the rules! Take the time, care, and patience to ensure what goes to print doesn't misinform your readership and the science community. Remember the sanity of the scientist, she is counting on your to get it right! If you are a journalist looking to cover a science story, give the scientist a courtesy read of what you "think" she said. She can perhaps tell you that by switching "never" to "almost never", your news story could help her save our planet and Kady.


* - in an effort to remain objective and unbiased, I didn't consult any family or friends for any opinions expressed in this opinion blog, not even the Shia Labeouf link.