How do you make sense of scientific data so that you can translate to your audience? First, know your data.

Data from different types of studies means different things.

  • Animal studies. We care about, and report on, scientific studies that involve animals for one reason: If something causes a health problem in an animal, we assume that the same substance may be harmful to humans. In the scientific world, research done on animals is primarily designed to identify potential human risk.
  • In vitro studies. Studies of isolated cells can show how a chemical can have a poison-like effect, but those kinds of studies, also known as in vitro studies, aren't automatically translatable to humans.
  • Comparison studies. Some studies compare a substance that hasn't been researched with substances that are known to be harmful. As with in vitro studies, comparison studies can't lead to direct links, but they can support findings from more direct studies, like animal studies.
  • Epidemiological studies. The most direct type of studies that offer the most reliable evidence are those that involve people, also known as epidemiological studies. But even in epidemiological studies, you have to examine how relevant findings are to a broad population versus a smaller and potentially more vulnerable population, such as children.

At the end of the day, journalists need to be careful and clear about how they communicate data findings and their implications.

Taken from Whose Truth? Tools for Smart Science Journalism in the Digital Age, a self-directed course by Elissa Yancey at Poynter NewsU.

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