Who’s ultimately to blame for shoddy science journalism? Is it the journalists themselves, trying to rush through another article to meet a deadline, not really worrying about accuracy or completeness? Is it the editor, who picks a clickbait headline to drive eyeballs, regardless of whether it hurts the image of science in the long-run? Is it the audiences, who are eager for flashy news and sexy results, and are willing to blind themselves to the more mundane aspects of actual science?
Of course all those elements play a role. The editors and journalists wouldn’t bother creating that kind of content if audiences weren’t interested. The audiences wouldn’t read the content if it wasn’t ever produced. So in a sense we’re all to blame (as is usually the case), but there’s something more fundamental going on.
And I certainly don’t mean to imply that all science journalism is in the gutter. But for every good, well-written piece that highlights an important, relevant development in science, there are a dozen pieces of junk. And those junk pieces do far more damage than the golden ones help.
The thing is, there’s very little that scientists can do about the public or about writers, producers, and editors. Sometimes the world is simply the way it is, at least for now. It’s easy to blame other agents for the poor state of science journalism, and just throw your hands up and say there’s nothing to be done. But there’s one thing that scientists have total control over: themselves.
Is there anything that scientists and science communicators can do to help rid the world of junk science reporting?
The first and last step: don’t play into it.
Scientists should freely and widely promote their work – that is the essence of public engagement. But scientists are under no obligation to conduct an interview with a journalist. And if they do, they have every right to see examples of prior work done by the journalist, and to see a list of questions sent in advance. Scientists can also request to review any articles before it goes public, and to place a condition of review on any interview request.
Maybe the journalist doesn’t like that kind of arrangement for various reasons. Maybe they’re under too short of a deadline. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable allowing scientists to review their work. Too bad. When a scientist speaks to the public, they don’t just represent themselves, but their research group, their university or lab, and the entire community. At a time when public regard for science continues to slink into the abyss, it’s important to insist upon integrity.