First Venture into the World of Science Journalism

As my intention this summer is to examine how scientific research is presented in media, I decided to start by researching science journalism. I purchased several books to better understand the relationship between scientists and journalists. I read three books: Taking Science to the People, A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media, and A Field Guide for Science Writers. It was interesting to read the advice these books contain, but it was especially fascinating to detect how the attitudes of scientists and journalists weren’t always in sync.

For instance, A Scientist’s Guide  discusses one danger of speaking with a reporter and  having too many points to make; authors Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman warn that “the reporter – not you – would have to determine the main message” (53).  This suggests that the role of good journalism is not to interpret science, but to convey strictly what scientists think is important. On the other end of the spectrum, in A Field Guide for Science Writers, contributing author Antonio Regalado acknowledges that it is important for science journalists to explain the science, but he emphasizes his skeptical approach: “I tend to assume, for instance, that researchers aren’t telling me the whole story. I always wonder about hidden motives. And as far as the scientific data goes, I believe that’s fair game for tough questions, too” (119). The stark contrast between Hayes and Grossman’s caution against and Regalado’s encouragement of heavier handed journalism hints at how complicated the relationship between the two fields are.

I quickly discovered what it looks like when the two fields intersect when I moved on from preliminary reading to searching for potential research studies on which to focus my case studies. I thought it would be easiest to find articles that mention scientific research and work backwards from there. So, I turned where everyone does when they need scientific information: Cosmopolitan. I’m mostly joking, but I think it would be a mistake to discount a magazine that has a circulation of over 3,000,000 a year. When something so widely consumed ventures into scientific territory, whatever is written merits attention.

Cosmo did not disappoint. One of my favorite pieces of research they wrote about was about how female-bodied people can spot snakes quicker when ovulating (as opposed to other points in the menstrual cycle). This hilarious claim was introduced with “A recent study found…” and spoke of how “they” tested reaction times. To be fair, a link about this nameless study conducted by nameless researchers was provided, although the link took me to a report that describes the research…but still didn’t provide the name of the study.

Needless to say, it proved much harder to track down original research than I expected. But I have since chosen 24 studies and whittled them down to just 12. My next steps are to read the original research methods and findings and then gather as many articles and videos about them as I can find. I am excited to see what I will discover.

Comments

  1. jnhartley says:

    I think that this is super interesting! Since the only way that much of the population interacts with science research is through the media, I feel that it is really important to understand how the media could be altering the message/findings that the researcher intends to publicize. In an age where it seems that we are confronted with a new headline about something causing cancer and something else curing it pretty much every day (to the point where some people have just stopped paying attention), it seems to me like a lot of research is being sensationalized to play to our emotions. I look forward to reading about what you find out!

  2. knnewman says:

    I love your topic! I always hear my science major friends say things like “I’m a scientist, I don’t need to know how to write” which is just ridiculous–it’s important to be able to convey results in a way that is understandable to the general population. Otherwise, what is the value of the gobbledegook produced when scientists don’t bother to articulate their findings without jargon-riddled, complex sentences? This is important between scientific disciplines too! A lot of scientific literature is so sub-field specific that even people with extensive scientific backgrounds can’t understand it unless they specialize in that very specific field. This discourages interdisciplinary collaboration, potentially preventing important breakthroughs and solutions to global problems. Like Jen, I’m really excited to see where your research takes you!