Making Sense of Science Reporting

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 7, 2008

The job of science reporters is to take complicated subjects and translate them for readers who are not scientifically sophisticated. Critics say that the news media oversimplify and aren't skeptical enough of financing by special interests.

That led me to review papers that are to be published soon as part of a project sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on how the media cover science and technology, and to interview a half-dozen experts, from scientists to teachers of science writing. Here's my take:

· Look for the evidence. News organizations should give weight to scientific evidence, whether it is about global warming or what the medical establishment says about Lyme disease.

Post science reporter David Brown, who is also a physician, talked about this in a recent speech at the University of Iowa. It will be published next year. "In science, there is a natural tension between evidence and opinion, and evidence always wins. What authority figures have to say about anything in science is ultimately irrelevant. Unfortunately, in a lot of science reporting, as in a lot of reporting in general, that isn't the case.''

Science reporters should give readers enough information to judge "the strength of a claim" and report "how the news fits into what's already known about the subject," Brown said. "It isn't always easy to boil down research findings to a few numbers that capture the essence" of a study. "Sometimes it can't be done or can't be done on deadline," he said. So follow-ups are important.

Brown recommends noticing how much space in an article is devoted to describing the evidence of the newsworthiness of the story and how much is devoted to someone telling you what to think about it. "If there isn't enough information to give you, the reader, a fighting chance to decide for yourself whether something is important, then somebody isn't doing his job, or hers."

· Look for context. Are the results preliminary? Does the research conflict with or confirm earlier work? Has it been published in a reputable science journal or been presented at a science meeting?

· Look beyond the lead paragraph and headline. Remember that antioxidants were touted to prevent all sorts of disease; research proved that not to be true. One recent Page 1 story, by veteran Post science reporter Rob Stein, attracted comment and criticism. Stein wrote that a study produced "powerful evidence" that a blood test designed to monitor inflammation could identify "seemingly healthy people who are at increased risk for a heart attack or stroke" and that a widely used statin drug offered "potent protection against the nation's leading killers." The story quoted the study's author and other prominent experts as calling the findings a "breakthrough," a "blockbuster" and "absolutely paradigm-shifting."

The Foundation for Integrative AIDS Research (FIAR) -- which has a stake in the issue because AIDS drugs can raise "bad" cholesterol levels -- said stories about the study reflected "shoddy boosterism for the pharmaceutical industry rather than a careful and balanced analysis."

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