Attention Span, Context, and Science Journalism

While Eric Alterman is discussing global warming, I actually think his comments are more appropriate for medical reporting–all those studies breathlessly reporting some NEW FINDING! (boldface mine):

Dr. François Gonon, a neurobiologist at the University of Bordeaux, together with his colleagues recently published an article in The Public Library of Science, taking a foray into media criticism. Using attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, for his experiment metaphor, Gonon and company searched the databases PubMed and Factiva for articles on ADHD. They found that 47 papers on ADHD received coverage in 347 articles in English-language newspapers during the 1990s. From these, The Economist reports, Gonon’s team picked 10 papers that had enjoyed fully 223 of the news articles.

What happened next, if you’ll forgive me, turned out to be a case of journalistic ADHD. While 67 later studies examined those selected 10, the second batch received attention in only 57 newspaper articles total, with most of them focusing on only two such studies. Gonon’s conclusion: An “almost complete amnesia in the newspaper coverage of biomedical findings.”

Why does this matter? Well, as it turns out, 80 percent of the original newspaper articles happened to be mistaken or at least incomplete, as they either refuted or substantially modified original findings of the studies. But readers, by and large, never heard about this. So even those few readers lucky enough to have access to one of the few newspapers that take such matters seriously found themselves uninformed. And what’s more, The Economist found, via Google News, that no English language newspaper mentioned the release of Gonon’s study.

This kind of failure may be endemic to journalism. Scientific researchers tend not to have publicists. They do not go on cable chat shows. And they rarely mention Justin Bieber. Their papers are difficult to understand and translate into eighth-grade-level English, and they do not excite advertisers. The only reason to publish articles about scientific research is that they constitute news—and actual news is in shorter and shorter supply in our media.

Since some science journalists occasionally read this blog, what I write next stems from a sincere desire to help (that’s very rare for this blog, grab it while you can). Too often, there is a preliminary or splashy finding that has not been vetted. Busy scientists read the coverage, are disgusted, and retreat further from public engagement. While that’s not a good response by scientists, it’s understandable. As a journalist, however, you’ve just been added to the idiot pile (e.g., Igon Values and technobrat pundits). Forget about scientific integrity (though one shouldn’t), that probably isn’t helping you.

Ultimately, I think the problem stems from Alterman’s last sentence: most scientific articles aren’t news, in the sense that they are a major breakthrough. They are usually follow-up studies, confirmation, or hypothesis generation. The latter is where journalists usually run into trouble, as they conflate what might be with what is supported by data, and consequently lose the respect of working scientists. Well-supported scientific findings, in a sense, are the antithesis of news (though perhaps not long-form journalism) in that there’s no catchy item. Instead, there is a slow accumulation of evidence and understanding. Important but not especially useful for a business looking for NEWS! That seems to be the basic problem that needs to be solved.

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