Expert Commentary

Reporting on scientific failures and holding the science community accountable: 5 tips for journalists

Two scholars offer guidance to help newsrooms report more accurately on scientists' work and hold the scientific community responsible for protecting the integrity of science.

scientific failures hold accountable tips journalists
A crowd in Washington, D.C. marches in support of science funding and research on politics. (Unsplash/Vlad Tchompalov)

Few journalists have the time or opportunity to fully explain the scientific process each time they report on academic research. But they can make small changes to improve the accuracy of their coverage and help audiences understand how scholars advance scientific knowledge, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The way newsrooms frame scientific discoveries and failures can influence how people view science and scientists. Journalists should present science as a process of exploration, scrutiny and self-correction, Jamieson writes in an essay “Crisis or Self-Correction: Rethinking Media Narratives About the Well-Being of Science,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018.

“Defective narratives can enhance the capacity of partisans to discredit areas of science — including genetic engineering, vaccination, and climate change — containing findings that are ideologically uncongenial to them,” writes Jamieson, who also is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and co-founder of SciCheck, a project that monitors and exposes politicians’ false and misleading claims about science.

“In contrast,” she continues, “accurate narratives can increase public understanding not only of the nature of the discovery process, but also of the inevitability of false starts and occasional fraud.”

A new research paper Jamieson wrote with Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, offers additional insights. Negative news coverage of science without adequate context can erode public trust, according to their study, “The Effects of Media Narratives About Failures and Discoveries in Science on Beliefs About and Support for Science,” published last month in the journal Public Understanding of Science.

“It is not a journalist’s job to make science look good but, rather, to report fairly and accurately on scientific work and hold the scientific community responsible for its failures,” Jamieson says.

We asked Jamieson and Ophir for guidance on how to help journalists do those things better. We distilled their comments and suggestions into these five tips.

1. When an academic journal retracts a research article, press for details about what went wrong and how the academic community plans to prevent it from happening again.

When academic journals determine research they published is no longer trustworthy because they have discovered major errors, scientific misconduct or other problems, they retract those papers.

Journalists tend to report on the most controversial retractions. When they do, they often do not explain what led to the retraction or how well the journal is addressing the issue.

Jamieson urges journalists to hold the scientific community accountable for protecting the integrity of science. An important way to do that, she says, is by pressing journals to reveal the circumstances behind retractions and asking questions about their published retraction notices.

Some journals offer scant details, failing to comply with retraction guidelines set by the nonprofit Committee on Publication Ethics, which recommends journals make retractions available to everyone, not just subscribers. Retraction Watch, a project of the nonprofit Center for Scientific Integrity, tracks and spotlights retractions and, more specifically, “unhelpful retraction notices.”

“Sometimes, the journalist’s job is to push the journal,” Jamieson says. “Journalists aren’t doing their job if they’re not asking why a retraction was issued.”

Some other questions to ask:

  • What does the published retraction notice say exactly?
  • Does it clearly explain the reason for the retraction and who retracted the article?
  • When did the journal learn of the problem?
  • When did it publish the retraction?
  • How did the problem come to journal editors’ attention?
  • How will the journal minimize the likelihood the problem will happen again?
  • What is the scientific community doing to explore solutions and implement them?

2. Emphasize that mistakes are essential to science.

When journalists report on journal retractions and scientific errors, they usually leave out the fact that making mistakes is a natural — and essential — part of the scientific process, Ophir says. That missing context, he says, can hurt public trust in scientific findings more broadly.

Advancing knowledge takes lots of trial and error. Also, scientists continually check, critique and try to replicate one another’s work, which means they are bound to run across mistakes and other shortcomings on occasion. As scientists build knowledge, they correct those issues and make other changes in response to new information, including new research findings, theories and data.

“Science is ongoing — it never ends and always keeps checking itself,” Ophir says. “One thing might appear to be right one day but new evidence may indicate that it’s not the next day.”

This context is important when covering academic journal retractions, Jamieson points out. News stories should note that retractions signal that science is holding itself accountable, whether that retraction is the result of unintentional error or scientific misconduct.

“Journals are correcting the scholarly record,” she says. “Science caught the error. Science didn’t cover it up. The journals said, ‘Don’t trust that finding.’”

3. Explain that the scientific process is complex, full of false starts and dead ends. 

News outlets often portray research as “a quest that leads to discovery” using words such as “discovery,” “breakthrough” and “advance” to describe findings, according to a 2018 analysis from the Annenberg Science Media Monitor, which looks at news coverage of research and the scientific process.

However, the “discovery” narrative “inaccurately implies that the path to scientific knowledge is inevitable,” the report states.

“There is a finality to the discovery narrative,” Jamieson says. “It’s a good narrative. It’s just not as good as it should be.”

Jamieson notes the path to knowledge often takes many detours, and includes plenty of false starts and dead ends. An example of a dead end: Toward the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, small-scale, observational studies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria and rheumatoid arthritis, suggested it might be an effective treatment for COVID-19. But larger, randomized, controlled trials — the best method for gauging the efficacy of drugs — later confirmed it is not.

Journalists should help audiences understand that the scientific process is winding and complex. News outlets generally fail to acknowledge false starts and dead ends. Less than 5% of the 281 news articles the Annenberg Science Media Monitor examined in 2018 mention false starts.

4. Trust science over the work of individual scientists.

Ophir says journalists should be cautious of scientists claiming they have learned something new and surprising that has not undergone peer review.

News outlets should consider it a big, red flag, he adds, when a researcher claims to have found something the scientific community wants to suppress and posts that information to a website or distributes it with help from a partisan organization.

“I don’t mind journalists finding anti-heroes, as long as [the anti-heroes] let the scientific community check their work,” Ophir explains. “If they tried to get published in a journal and couldn’t, that’s a red flag. If their work is so rigorous and careful, then anonymous peer review should find merit in it.”

The bottom line: Trust science — the scientific process and scientific consensus — over individual scientists, he says.

“Don’t trust me, trust the science and the system behind me,” he says. “People shouldn’t trust me because I have a PhD or I’m smart or I went to a good school. Trust my work because I sent it to other researchers who carefully looked at it.”

5. Do more “problem-explored” stories.

Ophir and Jamieson urge journalists to focus more of their science coverage on scholars’ efforts to identify and remedy issues challenging the integrity of science — for example, the rise in journal retractions and failures to replicate research in various fields, psychology in particular.

Framing stories this way — Ophir and Jamieson call it the “problem-explored narrative” — could help bolster public trust in science and scientists, they say.

It could “yield more positive beliefs and attitudes about science and scientists, by better communicating scientific norms of continuing exploration, scrutiny, and skepticism,” they write in their new paper.

In Jamieson’s 2018 essay in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she stresses the importance of spotlighting the science community’s efforts to solve problems as well as evidence of whether or not solutions are working.

“By responsibly publicizing both breaches of integrity and attempts to forestall them, news can perform its accountability function without undermining public trust in the most reliable form of knowledge generation humans have devised,” Jamieson writes.

She also recommends solution-focused headlines. Rather than run a news headline that only mentions the problem, include language to indicate there are solutions or that scholars are investigating remedies. For instance, add phrases such as “and what can be done about it” to headlines.

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