In discussing the assignments in the classroom, there are several journalistic problems that the studies found on the Journalist’s Resource website illustrate particularly well. The problems include the following:
The importance of definition and translation
The limits of time and space require the journalist to reduce complex reality to a simpler form that the audience can readily understand. Reporters typically do this in two ways. They define terms that readers otherwise would not understand. Or they translate difficult concepts by comparing them to something that readers already know. These techniques can be difficult to apply when conveying research findings. Criminal justice is an example. It has multiple dimensions, and the use of imprecise definitions and inappropriate comparisons can easily mislead the audience.
The need for qualification
Researchers typically avoid flat statements of causality, recognizing that scientific knowledge evolves and is subject to falsification. When including scientific research in a news report, it is always best to qualify the results, no matter how conclusive they might appear to be. It is best to say that the research “appears to support” or “suggests a strong association” than to say the research “proves” a particular linkage. This requirement becomes doubly important when research is reported in the context of a policy issue. In nearly every instance, the research addresses only part of the issue and inevitably provides a less complete answer than initially assumed. The early coverage of AIDS research, for instance, is a lesson in the pitfalls of unqualified reporting.
The need for perspective
The state of scientific knowledge changes over time. In writing about science, medicine, technology or the social sciences, good reporters always place what is new in the context of what has come before and what appears likely to come next. What did we know? What do we know now? What does that new knowledge suggest? Such information can serve as a yardstick for measuring the magnitude of new discovery. Global warming is an example. Important scientific findings about the nature of the problem are regularly released and now economists, engineers, and other professionals are systematically studying the efficacy of alternative ways of addressing the problem.
The problem of time
All reporters, whatever the skill level, face deadline pressures. The temptation to skim the surface of a story or to use readymade conclusions can be difficult to resist. The chance for error increases, however, with the complexity of the topic and the reporter’s unfamiliarity with it. Some of the assignments are designed to highlight this problem by imposing time or information constraints on the students’ work. Subsequent assignments then relax these constraints, providing a basis for assessing the effect of time and information on the quality of the reporting.
The problem of bias
While reporters are trained to accurately and fairly convey competing points of view, there are situations where all views are not equal. Scientific research as it relates to policy issues is one such area. Treating two opposed yet unequal positions as though they were equal is called “he said/she said” journalism — the reporter acts as stenographer, passing on subjects’ positions without regard to merit. Journalists have a responsibility, within the limits of space and time, to provide a comprehensive and credible account of the subjects they cover. At one time, for example, stories on the health dangers of cigarette smoking routinely included refutations from tobacco companies or scientists in their hire. Such reporting gives self-interested parties a platform to promote false claims.