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It strikes me as a contradiction: on the one hand, scientists loathe mainstream journalism because reporters never get anything right, and yet they're afraid a random article will carry sufficient credibility to damage their careers? It makes no logical sense.

I heard it said once that "every article you read in the newspaper is completely correct, except for that rare article about which you have some firsthand knowledge."

I haven't been horribly scientifically misquoted myself; I haven't been quoted a lot in the press at all. There was some press at the time of the Knop 2003 accelerating Universe paper. The worst thing about that was in a very small local paper that had the title, "Universe is expanding." Some people sometimes say that I was on the team that discovered the expansion of the Universe. (Really, guys, I'm not as old as I look.) So I haven't personally been involved in this.

However, I have seen multiple family members go through a huge amount of pain because of either deliberate character assassination, or because of a small mistake that got echoed by lots of other newspapers... a mistake that happened to amplify the alarmist impact of the story.

People tend to believe what they read in the newspapers. Other scientists will think, Hmm, Professor A said X. If you can set them straight, great, but bear in mind that your grant proposals are reviewed by people whom you don't regularly communicate with, that your tenure letters are often supposed to be written by people who know your work but whom you don't communicate with.... If we're misquoted in the media, we do not always have a platform to set the record straight.

What's more, we're ultimately judged by administrators who often as not are clueless about science, and while they'll look at your publication record as a list, they will have an easier time understanding mainstream newspaper articles than our real work. Yes, they're influenced by recommendations and such written by people in our field, but bad misquotations that make us look bad to our administrators can hurt us.

So, it's not a logical contradiction at all, but it follows logically. We're worried that newspaper articles will hurt our career because too often the mainstream press screws up the science (and, in my experience, almost anything else). The fact is that among most, newspapers do have credibility, even if perhaps we're all credulous for giving them as much credibility as we do.


Oops -- I keep forgetting that HTML doesn't work in the comments here. The first paragraph of that last comment was supposed to be in italics, as it was the quote from the original post to which I was responding.

"However, it is that reporter's job to shape an article into a strong narrative; that's just good science communication, good story-telling, good writing. "

The problem is when people start thinking that scientific research follows some sort of narrative structure, so that they need to be retrained.

There's also the 'loser' stigma- the view that peole who give a lot of public talks and interviews are doing so to make up for the fact that they are no longer invited to review papers, collaborate on research, get grants, etc.

I must agree with one of Rob Knop's points: ADMINISTRATORS. You can tell the accurate truth, be quoted correctly, and if that happens to hit one of your boss's buttons, your life can turn into a living Hell. And unless you are a very large scientific fish, there are a LOT of administrators above you in the food chain. They don't know you, you don't know them, and every one of them is a land-mine waiting to go off if you step on one of its trip-wires.

(To be fair, the administrators probably consider YOU a random explosion waiting to go off and damage their institution.)

"Honestly, I don't quite get it. It strikes me as a contradiction: on the one hand, scientists loathe mainstream journalism because reporters never get anything right, and yet they're afraid a random article will carry sufficient credibility to damage their careers? It makes no logical sense."

To quote **Star Trek IV,** "Whoever said the human race was logical?"

The premise involved here is, I think, "Journalism is not to be relied upon." Call this proposition P, if you'd like. Scientists accept P, so the story goes, when they tell each other that "reporters never get anything right." However, they appear to **deny** P when they're afraid that journalism will hurt their careers because somebody, somewhere relies upon it. P and not P.

It's only a direct contradiction if everybody, everywhere accepts the proposition P. If everyone in academia -- everybody with input on funding or tenure decisions -- knew that journalism couldn't be trusted, and if everyone was fully aware of what all the other people thought, then who would give a damn? The problem happens when **you** don't trust reporters to get the story right, and you worry that **other people** won't see the situation as clearly as you do. I think this is a reasonable worry, although the spectacle of everybody thinking they're the only ones who can see the truth is a trifle silly.

Both my parents worked in the newspaper business, and my mother taught me a basic rule of the trade: "All the news that fits, we print." I liked this motto so much that I made it the title of a blag post:

I think the Internet could be a helpful tool in improving science journalism, if we learn to use it right. For one thing, it's reduced the cost of self-publication basically to the time one invests in the task, and (for better or worse) it short-circuits the editorial process. Today, a scientist who is misquoted in a newspaper, magazine or television show can put forth their own version of their statements. Just look at what happened when T. Ryan Gregory got interviewed by **Wired**:

Of course, nobody is likely to **read** Dr. Gregory's corrective essay, unless they're already a science enthusiast who happens to get pointed to it by another science-themed blog. While this may foster an increasing level of hostility among net-savvy science buffs, stoking their antagonism against mainstream journalism, that's not (directly) a helpful outcome.

This is one of the times when I admit to a libertarian impulse and suggest that when **Wired** puts out a stupid article, **other magazines** should jump into the act and, fueled by the professional scientists pumping napalm through the blogotubes, breathe journalistic fire. Does **Seed** just want the web traffic from, or are they willing to use their not-so-tame dragons as a resource? Competition, man, competition. Markets are a **tool,** you know, so let's give them a place in our toolbox.

I've been interviewed by several very conscientious reporters who will repeat what I said in their own words and ask, "Is that right?" Some will check back with me before publication to verify facts. Others seem to hurry to put together something before a deadline and turn out a work that is inaccurate, poorly written, and in some cases totally wrong (reminding me of some of the things that my students write). The latter tend to turn off professionals. There are several people in my department who absolutely refuse to talk to the media because they have been misquoted and misrepresented on multiple occasions. All to many reporters report on science topics without knowing anything at all about science, and they don't want to take the time to learn about what they are reporting. I know that I've had reporters interview me and then totally botch quotes (isn't there something unethical about putting down words that someone didn't say, putting quotation marks around those words, and attributing them to that person????). I've had stories go into print that are factually WRONG, and then attribute those "facts" to me, though I said nothing of the sort. I often feel embarrassed when I read that, wondering what knowledgeable people will think of me when they read it. One newspaper even gave my title as Professor of Astrology, and even misstated the name of my college! That was particularly hard to believe, since I had given him a business card with the correct title on it! So, I can understand why so many professionals refuse to talk to the media.

But, I still do grant interviews when asked. I think that it is important for us to communicate with the public. And, the mass media is the usual way that the public finds out what is going on. But, I do try to get a feel for the person interviewing me, and I try to make sure that they understand me.

Socrates never said being a scholar and a thinker was going to be easy....
Sometimes you have to do the right thing, consequences be damned.
Talk to the press. Raise all hell if the story is inaccurate. (I love the idea of using web-magazines to police other news outlets.) By the way, the academic administrators are being just as incompetent in carryng out their duties, as the reporters, in such situations as are being feared by those afraid to talk. Maybe those administrators need to be educated too in such situations. Sometimes only martyrdom makes the point, I'm sorry to say.... We all want a fair world, but... This is life. Put yourself on the line.
With all the incessant ragging on the press, we tend to forget that it is the fourth estate. Without it, we are lost as a democracy. Without it, the very idea of democracy is lost. Talk to the press. (But be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Use the good advice Jennifer and others give.)
Thanks again to Jennifer for her voice of reason!

Sometimes you have to do the right thing, consequences be damned.

That's easy to say if you aren't the one facing the consequences....

On the Media already covered this issue from a more general perspective. See "Just Email Me" from the 5.25.2007 issue. The internet and blogs present a potent tool to counter inaccurate information in journalistic media.

I suggest that any scientist being interviewed obtain a voice recorder and record the interview if the journalist won't do it by email. If you have an iPod, get an iTalk. They can be had for $20 or so on eBay. Post the mp3 and let anyone who cares listen. That's what Jason Calacanis does. Mr. Calacanis points out that a journalist working for Wired, ironically, won't do an interview by email.

I do want to interject that despite the "side" I've been arguing in my comments, I am not 'anti-media,' and have (on the very rare occasion when it was warranted) happily agreed to interviews with journalists.

However, also as somebody who's in a precarious position regarding being able to *stay* a scientist, as well as somebody who's listened to administrators talked over the years and has watched University administrations work over the years, I'm fully aware of the dangers that all of us face, especially those of us who are pre-tenure. And, I can *easily* understand why somebody else might not want ever to talk to the media for fear of being misquoted. As I've said, I've seen the media do terrible things that had severe personal consequences for their subjects in some non-science areas.

My main point is one of the points that Jennifer makes in her last paragraph. I can fully understand the reasons why some would hesitate to talk to the media. My secondary point is that given that the reasons are understandable, it's not really fair to chastise those, especially those in precarious positions, for not putting their own welfare on the line to fight the good fight in the face of what at least seems like inevitable personal suffering while changing nothing materially.


"If you don't want to consent to interviews, that's your prerogative ... But on the flip side, you then forfeit your right to complain about poor science coverage -- because (as I've said before in a prior post) you are a big part of the problem."

I didn't understand this in the prior post and I don't get it now. It sounds like a non sequitur to me.

Nice troll. "particularly angry" really? why? because I suggested journalists should stop lying? Or would this perhaps be yet another exhausting example of the journalist mindset to go for the sensational over the mundane with little care for the truth of the matter?

To clarify for readers of your trolling, my comments over on Aetiology are quite obviously focused on the phenomenon Mike the Mad Biologist has termed "predetermined storylines and quote mining". You, however, have chosen to seize on my quote to further an argument regarding legitimate scientific debate. This has nothing to do with the aforementioned quote mining issue to which I referred in which the "truth" at stake is whatever the quotee is trying convey regarding his or her opinion. That, surely you agree, is not up to the judgment of the journalist and the proper role is to convey the quotee's opinion as accurately as possible or not at all. When the least representative quote from a 40 min conversation makes it into an article, well, this can hardly be construed as anything other than intentionally lying.

Plenty of journalist apologists participating in this blogostorm insist that this sort of thing is rare. If so, why do so many of us have examples of this shabby treatment? The fact that this critique is so similar to ones commonly advanced in the political journalism arena suggests that the problem is the journalism profession, not the ability of scientists to communicate.

>Policies vary from publication to publication on letting scientists review articles or
>individual quotes prior to publication. The Industrial Physicist, for which I wrote for 10
>years before it shuttered, always extended this courtesy -- as a courtesy, mind you, not
>as a right -- but Discover, Salon, and just about any other mainstream media outlet
>specifically forbid a reporter from doing so.

I'm a little late to this discussion ...

Personally, I like talking to reporters and media people. I think it is our responsibility as scientists, but I also actually enjoy explaining my work to interested people.

But I honestly don't understand why these print media have these policies that Jennifer refers to above. I do understand of course that scientists are not immune from wanting to craft a reporter's story to paint themselves in the most favorable light, but the reporter doesn't have to change anything that the scientist balks at. On the occasions that my quotes have been used out of context - or words put in my mouth - they had the affect of making the case for something that was demonstrably untrue. Both the reporter and I looked ignorant. Such occasions could have been avoided had the reporter let me see the article before hand.... Such an arrangement would have been to the benefit of both of us. The reporter gets the facts right and I don't get misquoted.

If the reporter felt that I was being manipulative then they can just ignore my comments. I can't see how running an article past an expert source could detract from an article. Comments?

Rob says "I can fully understand the reasons why some would hesitate to talk to the media. My secondary point is that given that the reasons are understandable, it's not really fair to chastise those, especially those in precarious positions, for not putting their own welfare on the line to fight the good fight in the face of what at least seems like inevitable personal suffering while changing nothing materially."
You are right, Rob. I take my comments back. Everyone has to pick and choose their battles; you can't fight them all; and there are certainly cases such as you describe.

Dear Drugmonkey:

If a tongue-in-cheek teasing comment elicits this kind of response from you, then you ARE angry, at me, at the media, at the world, the very unfairness of life -- even if you don't want to admit it.

Screw journalists! And then after that, if you don't like it, you can do them a bad turn. But seriously, journalism is about as useful these days as sperm whale oil. If a scientist needs to get a point across, that can be done directly--bypassing journalists.

Journalists once had a stranglehold on the flow of information to the public. No more.

Hmmm, what might be an appropriate level of response to Organgrinder? Aha! "I know you are, but what am I?"

Seriously, if the above is an example of Organgrinder's communication skills and powers of persuasion -- well, good luck with the do-it-yourself approach to "getting your point across."

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