Since returning from a workshop on science communication for journalists I have been thinking a lot about science journalism both in the UK and abroad and wondering if science journalists need to understand the scientific process in order to write good science stories.
A number of people will argue that no, you don’t need to understand science to write a good science story — after all you don’t have to be an economist to write on economics or an investment banker to write on finance. While I tend to sympathise with this position I actually disagree with it and here I will outline why.
A lot of the issues around science reporting are to do with journalism more broadly; in other words questions of robust fact checking, investigation and scepticism. The problem is that for some journalists, science is viewed as a complicated process that is difficult to scrutinise. Understanding how science is done (not necessarily specialising in science) equips science journalists to better validate claims and question experts.
Trust me, I am a doctor.
As an example imagine a doctor calls a press conference to announce a cure for AIDS or a vaccine for HIV; how is a journalist with limited scientific experience supposed to challenge this person? These things do happen as illustrated by the craze for the Tockay Gecko in parts of South East Asia and the case of the infamous Dr Abalaka of Nigeria. Even the Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, is in the business of curing AIDS.
Having an understanding of the process research has to go through before publication or the phases in a clinical trial does not necessarily require a science degree but it would allow journalists to question the veracity of claims. The fact that the scientific method is a clearly defined process with checks and balances should provide tools for journalists to better scrutinise bogus claims whether they come from doctors or herbalists. For instance understanding that most drugs take between 10-15 years to go from initial testing to approval should give a journalist cause for pause when a miracle cure is suddenly announced. Understanding that scientists publish their claims in peer reviewed journals and present research at academic conferences would mean that a journalist would expect a trail of previous publications preceding the announcement of a cure and might be sceptical if a scientist calls a press conference instead of publishing his or her work in the usual manner. Other things which science-literate journalist might investigate include the affiliation of scientists and the sources of funding of controversial research claims. These should all help journalists better check the accuracy of scientific claims particularly in societies where vigorous consumer protection mechanisms do not exist. Of course all these things cannot stop unscrupulous people making bogus claims but they hopefully reduce the coverage they get and the risk they pose.
So no, journalists do not have to understand the details of every aspect of a science story but understanding the process that scientists’ go through and the tools for fact checking should lead to a better coverage and reporting of science.