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

Yes, math is tough, and so are physics, chemistry, biology and mechanical engineering. But even reporters who get queasy about science can’t always ignore it, particularly when reporting on economics, the environment, or medicine. While science writing is a specialty, general assignment reporters need only follow some simple guidelines to avoid mistakes.

1. Don’t sap the very life out of the story.
The world of science is filled with researchers working on particles a fraction the size of an atom and studying cosmic distances that are incomprehensible to the average person. And barely a day goes by when a researcher doesn’t come up with insights or a discovery once thought to be impossible. It’s a world filled with wonder and awe. Don’t get bogged down in numbers and minutiae. Find the passion and excitement of the story — then share them.

American astronaut Sunita Williams speaks with students at the National Science Center in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

2. Don’t leave out the science.
Some ongoing stories have significant science components. Two examples come immediately to mind: hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) and global warming. It’s not enough to write that the majority of scientists agree that the earth’s temperatures are increasing and that human activity is to blame. By mentioning how scientists take their readings and what they’re specifically finding, the public will acquire a deeper respect for the actual work involved and be in a better position to appreciate your stories. It may not be practical to include the science in every update, but consider doing so periodically.

3. Don’t get the science wrong.
Science is pretty complicated, whether it involves subatomic particles, chemical bonds, or DNA repair. It’s always better to take the time to write the story well, than to rush it for that day’s deadline. (Of course, that may mean negotiating with your editor for more time to do the story justice.) Get on good terms with a science press officer at a college who can put you in touch with an expert capable of explaining concepts in a simple, straightforward manner.

4. Don’t get stuck in the weeds.
The goal is to help people understand and appreciate the science in the story, not prepare for a physics mid-term. Every answer in science can lead to another “how” or “why” question. It may be enough to state that the waste product of hydrogen fuel cells is water, without discussing how hydrogen ions bond with hydroxide ions.

5. It’s OK to challenge an expert.
Scientists don’t always get it right (Can you say “cold fusion”?), and sometimes experts don’t explain things clearly. While you need to respect a scientist’s expertise, it’s important to maintain your skepticism and not relent when you find something to be confusing. Your loyalty lies with the public, not the scientist.

6. Make sure you get a second opinion.
My dad used to tell me that the same number of doctors finished in the bottom 10 percent of their class as finished in the top ten percent. While rank does not always indicate the quality of a doctor or scientist, his point remains — not all experts were created equally. Talk to a second scientist to verify what you’ve been told or to get a different perspective.

7. Don’t keep saying how dumb you are.
There are few things more ridiculous in journalism than having a broadcast host or reporter shake his or her head and say, “Golly, I’m lucky if I can tell Isaac Newton from a Fig Newton.”
Acting dumb does nothing to instill confidence in a science reporter. Journalists don’t take that approach in their political and economic reporting, so why do it with science? Reporters routinely go into interviews needing to learn about the subject at hand; science is no different. Do your homework and ask smart questions.

8. Don’t oversell research outcomes.
Scientific progress is rarely considered a breakthrough, and a discovery is not the same thing as a life-changing cure or an innovative new product. Research developments can be newsworthy without raising the public’s expectations.

9. There may not be an “other side” to the story.
There are people who believe the world is flat, that astronauts never landed on the moon, and that Elvis is still alive — but few journalists would consider including those angles in their stories. Learn which experts and theories are credible and take a stand for good science.

10. Don’t rely on inadequate experts.
Don’t get confused by credentials. A meteorologist is not the same as a climate scientist, and even a distinguished particle physicist is not necessarily an expert in quantum optics. Make sure an expert has the appropriate expertise.

Getting better at science reporting starts with reading good writers and publications, and there are plenty to choose from in both categories. Carl Zimmer, Joe Palca, Jon Hamilton, and Dennis Overbye come immediately to mind, as do magazines like Scientific American and Discover, not to mention the science section of The New York Times. And I urge anyone who’s serious about the topic to read A Field Guide for Science Writers; you may want to start with chapter 4: “Writing Well About Science.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/marcio.simoes.906 Márcio Simões

    A big mistake is not knowing any college math. I’ve met reporters that couldn’t
    figure out how much a price should be cut in order to get back to where it was
    before a raise of 35%. How a reporter like those ones can really interview a
    guy that, in order to explain himself properly, must mention Gaussian
    distribution, frame of reference or differential equations?

  • Giau Lam

    lam giau khong kho
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  • http://twitter.com/skemptastic kerry skemp

    Along with #8, I’d say more plainly: don’t flat-out misinterpret research outcomes. I’ve see way too many “news” stories (typically not by science writers) make claims about research that are flat-out wrong and betray not just a lack of understanding of the science, but of the scientific method and the specific methodology used in the study. Misinformed but dramatic claims made based on misunderstanding often spread widely without being corrected (in part because the dramatic claims may be more interesting than the truth, which is that science is complex!).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Smith/1801841712 Mike Smith

    As an atmospheric scientist I can state without reservation that #2 is factually incorrect. The earth stopped warming about 15 years ago and temperatures have been flat since 1998. Here is an excellent story on the subject: http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21574461-climate-may-be-heating-up-less-response-greenhouse-gas-emissions

  • Peter Iglinski

    I plead guilty, which leads me to rule #11: Don’t overlook 51% of the
    population, in science or elsewhere.

    I hope no one would object to me rounding out my list: Veronique
    Greenwood (I just started reading her latest in Discover), Gina Kolata, Alexandra
    Witze, and Rebecca Boyle.

    My apologies to all the excellent science writers—male and female—whom I
    didn’t mention. The problem with lists like this is that the people I think of
    today, may not be the ones I think of tomorrow.

  • AlainCo

    About Cold Fusion it is clear that too much enthusiasm with disruptive facts (non existent theory) and some errors (the neutrons) might kill a domain for long.

    One should also be cautious with theoretical arguments and simulations when facing measures.

    One things to do is to be courageous enough to reconsider your position with new facts, even if there is an official “ban” on that position.

    Hans Gerisher was on of the first skeptic to surrenders to facts. recently Dawn Dominguez of NRL, Robert Duncan of University of Missouri, added themselves to the long list on converted to facts.
    Today LENR is validated and pre-industrial, with many serious companies preparing for the battle to come: http://www.lenrnews.eu/lenr-summary-for-policy-makers/

    I hope science won’t get hurt when facts are accepted.
    The worst is that the quality of critics were so loose that it should have been hard to accept them… ( see http://lenrnews.eu/evidences-that-lenr-is-real-beyond-any-reasonable-doubt )

    I hope that one day we could make a good autopsy of that tragedy, and not the usual amnesty.

    According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb in “Antifragile” that kind of story is very common. It seems hopeless to change.

    AlainCo, the techwatcher of lenr-forum

  • harryeagar

    Scientific American? Really? I don’t think so. Not since it dumbed down in the ’80s, or didn’t you notice?

    How about some specific examples of bad science reporting? Almost anything from the AP about climate would be a good place to look.

    Addalled is exactly right about settled science. The 20th century was the century of settled science being proven incorrect. Immovable continents, check. Indivisible atoms, check. Human eugenics, check. IQ testing, check. Race theory, check. And on and on.

    I think 3. is misguided. The correct advice would be to editors to assign science stories to science literates. The Atlantic recently had a piece about GMOs whose authors and editors referred frequently to the Central Dogma of genetics, but they did not know what that dogma is; consequently, the story was balderdash.

  • http://twitter.com/sarahwebb Sarah Webb

    In addition to the Field Guide for Science Writers (which is a classic) I’d also recommend taking a look at The Science Writers’ Handbook http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0738216569/ which will be available on April 30. Full disclosure, I am a contributor to the new book and its website at http://pitchpublishprosper.com/

  • http://twitter.com/sacagawea Valerie Brown

    Thank you! I noticed that right away.

  • addalled

    Rule #1. When someone insists that something is “settled science” that means they don’t want you to question their data-gathering methods. See the latest issue of The Economist for more info.

  • http://twitter.com/marynmck Maryn McKenna

    I’m disappointed to see that all of your “good writers” examples are men, when science reporting is stuffed full of good female writers also: Deborah Blum, Denise Grady, Jennifer Ouellette, Emily Willingham, etc. etc. Rule 11?: “Remember that science and writing about science are performed by both genders.”