Many readers of Journalist’s Resource fall into one of two camps: hardworking journalists and hardworking academics. Recently, in hopes of providing an opportunity for the two groups to learn from each other, we posed two questions in our weekly newsletter and on Twitter.
Our question for the scholars among you: Have you noticed any common mistakes or missteps in news stories about scientific research during the COVID-19 pandemic? And our question for the journalists: What would you like academic researchers to understand about the job of a journalist — especially in the wake of a pandemic?
We received many thoughtful responses. Among the main takeaways: Journalists would like more academics to explain the practical relevance of their research — preferably in accessible language. And academics would like more journalists to understand that facts are complicated and context is important.
Posted below are several of the responses we received via e-mail or Twitter. We’ll update this post with future responses, and we’ll pose more questions in future e-mail newsletters. If you’d like to share your own response to either of the questions above, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to us via Facebook or Twitter.
Anna Boiko-Wayrauch, reporter at KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio (via e-mail): “I would like academics to know that when journalists like me turn to research we are trying to figure out how it applies and can help our readers, the average person. Often, it seems like researchers embark on a project looking to show how it can advance the scientific dialogue, how it can answer a specific question that other researchers have not answered yet. For journalists, I’m looking at how a research paper can answer a question that my readers have. How can it help them live better or understand the world around them better? I’m a general assignment reporter, so I don’t care if a paper is a ‘contribution to the field.’ I care if it’s a contribution to my audience members, Laura, Rachel, and Dave (to name a few folks I know are tuning in). I wish more academics would be able to address why their research matters to anyone who is not an academic. Some folks are quite good at this, some folks are not.”
Dr. Kira Newman, resident physician at the Adult Medicine Clinic at Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington (via Twitter): “Coverage often overstates the ability of studies to prove the effect of an exposure or treatment. Most #coronavirus studies are observational, meaning they can’t prove that X causes Y, just that X and Y are more often found at the same time or in the same people.”
Lydia Timmins, associate professor at the University of Delaware Department of Communication (via e-mail): “In response to the questions you posted, I can see both sides of journalist-professor. I spent 22 years in TV news (mostly as a producer) and am in my 10th year as a professor.
The big challenge for journalists is that we are used to, and expect, an expert to have answers. Answers that we can definitively report as fact, and then move on. That’s why they are experts, they know the answers. We want to write in active voice, sentences that state the fact of the matter in 8-10 seconds. We don’t like ‘maybe’ and ‘further research needed’ and ‘small sample size’ and ‘preliminary results’ and essentially NOT SURE OF THE CORRECT ANSWER. That makes journalists nervous.
Professors and researchers realize there really are few hard and fast facts. Things can change, the more research that gets done and peer-reviewed. What seemed like a fact last week is now updated. Professors know there’s always more and more to learn, even the experts are still learning and just don’t always have the final definitive answer. Science is not a textbook that gets handed out every year and never changes (at least it shouldn’t be!)
Journalists remember science class and how boring it was and hard to understand. (OK, making a HUGE generalization in that case.) I always joked that I became a journalist after failing math, chem and bio.
Now, I have developed and am co-teaching, with a scientist, a class designed to help scientists ‘make science make sense.’ I believe there is a profound gap between many (not all) journalists and many (not all) scientists. Each expects the other to understand where they are coming from, and that they speak the same language—but they don’t.”
Michael Fitzgerald, articles editor for Boston Globe Magazine (via e-mail): “Journalists work for audiences, and general interest audiences typically come away from a story with one thing that sticks. We need to tell our audiences Why Something Matters. We want that to be as simple and clear as possible. The story is going to have a headline, or an intro, and these also need to make a concise point. So we push academics and researchers to tell us Why Something Matters. And there’s often not just one reason why, and perhaps it isn’t clear. Also, academics, kind of like lawyers, are trying to plug every possible hole in their argument so that it doesn’t get ripped to shreds in peer-review. That does not lend itself well to making one big point.”
Noah Haber, post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Meta-Research Innovation Center (via Twitter): “One of the biggest general problems I have observed has been outlets uncritically covering individual studies as if their conclusions are the truth. Most studies offer limited evidence, and should be thought of as proposals for debate to potentially add evidence to the consensus.”
Tim Riley, associate professor of journalism and graduate program director at Emerson College (via e-mail): “I’m so tired of reading headlines like ‘TULSA SURGES WITH 89 DEATHS,’ a number that has no context, no relevance, and very little to recommend it in a head … early on, journalists could have agreed upon some tools for how to share data coming from hospitals and medical [communications] …
For example, ‘TULSA REPORTS 89 DEATHS, DOWN FROM WEEKLY AVG OF 104,’ OR, better: ‘89 DEATHS IN TULSA, 1.5% PER CAPITA, DOWN WHOPPING 60 PERCENT FROM LAST WEEK.’
Announcing the NUMBER of deaths MISREPORTS because it doesn’t have ANY FRAME OF REFERENCE.”