Genomicron has a great satirical post about how to write a bad science story. It’s worth a read. So, I ask you, readers, which of these ten journalistic ‘sins’ is the worst:
1. Choose your subject matter to be as amenable to sensationalism as possible.
2. Use a catchy headline, especially if it will undermine the story’s credibility.
3. Overstate the significance and novelty of the work.
4. Distort the history of the field and oversimplify the views of scientists.
5. Remember that controversy sells, and everyone loves an underdog.
6. Use buzzwords and clichés whenever possible.
7. Appeal to common misconceptions, and substitute your own opinions and misunderstandings for the views of the scientific community.
8. Seek balance, particularly where none is warranted.
9. Obscure the methods and conclusions of the study as much as possible.
10. Don’t provide any links to the original paper.
You should check out the original post if these aren’t clear. Me, I’m voting for #8, “Seek balance, particularly where none is warranted”, although #10 was a close second.
What’s your favorite science* journalistic foulup?
*One could argue that these failing apply to non-science displicines too.
I’m a big fan of number seven but number three is a close second!
11. Screw up the numbers.
The link to Genomicron is wrong. The correct link is
My favorite pet peeve (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) is the use of irrelevant or distorted statistics or equations to give nonsense that air of credibility
Fortunately, you don’t have to choose, since so much reporting is available with multiple ‘sins’.
11. Use the phrase “Holy Grail” as much as possible.
12. Take care that you don’t identify the operative substance or species whose effects or discovery the news is about.
(“A new _____”, “a surprising ________” is the most you should tell the reader; you don’t want them clicking away from your story to learn more.)
Number whatever: make sweeping, overly optomistic predictions from a small (albeit important) finding. E.g., a gene marker is identified, and immediately it is reported as a “breakthrough in cancer/obesity/baldness treatment” when such results are at best many, many years ahead.
2&3 often go together. The poor scientists had to say something when asked, and what realworld relevance might this work have? The next thing you know the title claims a massive breakthrough is going to allow some new miracle technology, when nothing of the sort is implied.
I don’t know if I’d say it’s the worst, but no. 10, no citation, is awfully annoying. The most egregious I’ve seen recently is this story about a psychologist’s formula for how people’s mood was affected by music. It didn’t even give the researcher’s name, referring to him (I assume), only as “A boffin in the UK”, and gave only a rather obviously bogus gloss on the formula itself.
“Gee, this might be interesting” you think, “now I just have to sort through every psychologist’s work at Goldsmith College to find out more!”
13 pronounce well-knwown scientific findings as breaking news
14 the smaller the sample and the more ambiguous the findings, the more licence for you as a journalist to use “journalistic licence” about the importance of the study
Number one stands out as it sounds like the main stream media’s mantra.
Make metaphors to everyday processes and objects. No need to check those metaphors with the scientists, as they’ll just claim it’s nothing like an eggbeater at all. Those eggheads don’t know how important it is to give the reader something familiar instead of that weird science stuff!
#8 is an alluring pick and is used most regularly by the folks at Discovery Institute in order to “Teach the Controversy”
#3 is used by publications whose intent is less onerous than Intelligent Design though their content puerile. There are lots of them on the web. They function like the “Weekly World” of internet science journalism and the articles not unlike Elvis sightings.
#1 See #3 above
#15. Claim the finding forces scientists to rethink their basic assumptions.
similar to #14 above, state that the finding means that scientists have been wrong all along and now must re-think everything, even if the discovery is minor and incremental
#8 and #10 dead heat
no wait… it’s balance! by a nose.
#8 and #10 dead heat
no wait… it’s balance! by a nose..