Why journalists drive scientists crazy, in graphs

Backreaction | Uncertain Principles

Scientists and the journalists who cover them are locked in an “eternal tug of war,” Sabine Hossenfelder writes. The journos feel they have to elide detail so a general audience can read them. The scientists feel the resulting “knowledge transfer” to readers is pitifully low. Hossenfelder illustrates the problem with a series of graphs, like this one:

Hossenfelder notes that sports journalism doesn’t assume its readers need their reports dumbed-down, and suggests online science journalism may hold a solution: “a system with a few layers – call them beginner, advanced, pro – would already make a big difference.”

One simple way towards this would be to allow the frustrated scientist whose details got scraped to add explanations and references in a way that readers can access them when they wish. This would also have the benefit of not putting more load on the journalist.

Hossenfelder’s sports journalism analogy isn’t perfect, Chad Orzel writes in reply. One example, curling. “If you look at more obscure sports, that are only regionally popular, the coverage for hard-core fans is just as inscrutable as anything scientists write.”

Orzel is skeptical about Hossenfelder’s multi-layered approach, but he thinks publications could do something like that with links. Unfortunately, “most media organizations regard links to other publications as slightly less desirable than painful and disfiguring disease,” he writes. “Most of them won’t even link to the source papers and/or press releases, which is maddening.”

He suggests “a sort of meta-journalism site, something that would aggregate and sort stories by their level of background, and present those links.” Social media may present the solution he’s looking for: One commenter says Reddit and Slashdot already fill those roles.

Related: The 10 biggest science-reporting mistakes (and how to avoid them)


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  • Dan Vergano

    I’m afraid that the original article is based on a “deficit” model of science communication — one where readers are empty vessels who are supposed to be passively filled with knowledge by scientists through the workings of their reporter transcribers.

    A lot of research in the last decade suggests this isn’t how readers/viewers actually comprehend the news, and this view of science communication is widely seen as outdated and incorrect among cognitive researchers who study public opinion. People arrive at a news piece with all sorts of preconceptions that the story has to engage successfully or they won’t comprehend any of its details, no matter how many links we add to the piece in a bid to make the search engines happy.

    Also it reflects a fairly naive understanding of the intended role of a reporter in our society. We are supposed to be writing and thinking critically about the news; we can’t provide the education that schools have failed to provide our readers, sadly. That’s why a newspaper costs a buck and tuition costs $40 grand. As well, not making too many mistakes writing about complex topics is hard enough at a time when science reporters have largely disappeared as staff professionals.

    At the root of this kind of discussion is a great deal of dissatisfaction among technically-astute folks at their relative lack of power, compared to the legal and financial sectors. They often strike out at reporters (perhaps understandably as journalism is a terribly imperfect enterprise) in their frustration over the failure of science-backed policies to carry as much weight as they wish in our society. I think this is just one more manifestation of their understandable frustration. But not a solution.

  • chris joyce

    I have to disagree with this analysis. For one, the graph commits the very crime described: it looks great and lends legitimacy, but one needs the underlying data it’s based on to verify whether it’s really representative. I suspect it may oversimplify or “dumb down” the details. For another, go to specialized sports media sites; compared to newspapers or broadcast (I’m a science journalist in the latter business), the level of detail is orders of magnitude higher. General media indeed “dumb down” the level of detail in sports writing, because many readers are not sports fanatics. And last, scientists more often than not overestimate the value of “their” details in communicating their work. They write, and have been taught to write, for their peers–a small group with its own set of standards. Those standards are designed to help other scientists test and replicate their work, and also to prove to skeptical peers that they’ve designed their protocol correctly and properly interpreted that data. That goal is so very different from communicating science to non-scientists, who mostly will be bored/confused/disinterested in, for example, methodology, which is only rarely important to understanding the results. As for layering levels of sophistication, we already do: You can read Scientific American, listen to NPR, or read the New York Post–and everything in between.

  • http://www.cardiobrief.org Larry Husten

    Here’s something I wrote a few years ago, a different take on the comparison of sports journalism and science journalism:

    http://cardiobrief.org/2009/10/07/october-thought-experiment-suppose-the-world-series-were-covered-like-the-nobel-prizes/

  • mem_somerville
  • ctmalley

    To make this complete, we need to see a plot of actual knowledge transfer to the readers. It can be safely assumed that neither the journalist nor the scientist will get that right.

  • John R Platt

    I always link directly to the original papers and/or press releases when I cover a science story. I don’t see why any publisher wouldn’t.