Science writing


Using a rumor site to investigate scientific fraud

The first whispers of fraud in the LaCour gay-marriage persuasion study were voiced on an underground rumor site for political scientists, almost six months before the academic scandal broke nationally.

The site —, or PSR — is one of a growing number of gossip communities that may provide leads for enterprising reporters. Visiting such a site might be compared to turning over a rock to see the bugs underneath. It’s not necessarily the ideal source for a story about scientific ethics, but valuable if mined correctly.

Mainstream journalists are beginning to carefully enter these subterranean communication spaces. In the process, a whole new kind of anonymous source is emerging.

Jesse Singal, a senior editor at New York Magazine and head of its Science of Us blog, began posting on PSR to gather information relating to the bombshell revelations of data fabrication by UCLA grad student Michael LaCour. Read more

microscope in a medical lab

Journalists do a lousy job reporting on health studies, researchers find

JAMA Internal Medicine

Researchers found a lot to be dissatisfied with in a review of nearly 2,000 stories about “new medical treatments, tests, products, and procedures.” Most stories were “unsatisfactory on 5 of 10 review criteria: costs, benefits, harms, quality of the evidence, and comparison of the new approach with alternatives,” Gary Schwitzer writes in a report published by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Some of the problems researchers from found in the study, which examined reports in print, Web and broadcast media:

  • Stories “often framed benefits in the most positive light”
    It’s important to report on absolute risk, not just relative risk, the study warns. Here’s a guide to understanding the difference.
  • Reports rarely explain the limitations of observational studies
    Lots of news outlets reported on a Mayo Clinic study published last summer about the effects of coffee on mortality, and “Each story used language suggesting cause and effect had been established, although it had not,” Schwitzer writes.
Read more

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.” Read more

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 11.47.02 PM

Matter faces familiar challenges in crafting a new web experience

While most online news outlets worry about their mobile-first strategy, Matter is trying to create a web-first reading experience. It doesn’t publish a print edition, present a bundled collection of news articles or host advertisements. It has no pop-ups, banners or complicated navigation menus — just a clean, lightweight layout that lets the story stand on its own.

Since its November 2012 launch, the site has offered human-focused, long-form investigative writing about science and technology – a flavor of journalism that’s largely disappeared amid the Web’s cost-cutting strategies and attention-deficit design.

“We’d hear about stories people wanted to tell that were crying out for narrative treatment,” co-founder Jim Giles told me when I visited Matter’s San Francisco office in August. Matter’s stories have ranged from body integrity identity disorder to Silicon Valley’s “charisma coach” to Tutankhamun’s DNA. Read more


Style guide aims to make it easier to cover stories like Plan B

When news broke that the Obama administration had abandoned its effort to maintain age restrictions on a form of emergency contraception called Plan B, Monte Morin described the medication using dispassionate and clear language:

Plan B One-Step, like the related two-pill Plan B, uses the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel to prevent pregnancy by blocking ovulation and impeding the mobility of sperm. Neither Plan B nor Plan B One-Step causes an abortion, nor does either harm a fetus.

Emotions run high around any news involving contraception or abortion, and news organizations do themselves and their audiences a real service when they deliver news in a fashion that allows readers to focus on the content of their stories rather than on how they’re presented.

That’s one reason why the Women’s Media Center’s newish “Media Guide to Covering Reproductive Issues” by Sarah Erdreich is an interesting read for anyone covering stories like Plan B. Read more

magnifying glass and puzzle

How digital platforms are changing the way science reporters find & tell stories

NASA’s many social media products point to an uncomfortable new reality for reporters: the space agency doesn’t really need them to break news.

“We have an obligation to authentically share NASA on social media,” Jason Townsend, deputy social media manager for NASA, said in an email interview. “When we have news — a big discovery or mission activities — we will be covering it on social media. We know that many reporters follow us and get their information directly from social media instead of waiting for it to show up on the wire.”

NASA now has accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube and Flickr, through which the agency can tell followers about the latest discovery, or share interesting content in general. It’s its own media outlet. Read more

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

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. Read more


New longform science journalism site ‘Matter’ launches today

Matter, a site that publishes longform stories about science and technology, launched today. The site, which will publish one story per month, is open to people who sign up as members. For 99 cents, they’ll get access to monthly stories, along with ebook and audiobook versions of the story.

Members are also invited to online question and answer sessions with the site’s editors and writers to find out more about the reporting that went into each story.

The site launched with a story about Body Integrity Identity Disorder, which affects people who want to remove some part of their bodies — often a limb or two. Anil Ananthaswamy profiled a man who has the disease and accompanied him when he got his leg amputated in Asia. Read more


NPR’s new global health beat blends social media, traditional reporting

As news organizations experiment more with social networking sites, many are realizing that social media has to be an integral part of how we gather news, tell stories and develop beats.

NPR’s new global health and development beat is a good example of a hybrid approach to storytelling, one that places just as much emphasis on social media as it does on shoe-leather reporting.

NPR has hired an associate producer, Michaeleen Doucleff, who will work with reporter Jason Beaubien to build an audience for the beat through social media and multimedia. The beat, which is part of NPR’s Science Desk, is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation.

A new & better way to tell global health stories

Joe Neel, deputy senior supervising editor and a correspondent on the Science Desk, said the global health and development beat is helping NPR’s science team reshape the way it approaches stories. Read more


Science writers: Jonah Lehrer’s scientific errors worse than fabricated quotes

Discover Magazine | Psychology Today | Huffington Post | Meetings & Conventions

Jonah Lehrer’s fake Bob Dylan quotations detract from a more serious problem flagged by scientists while he was a rising star: his habit of misstating and mischaracterizing scientific facts. The problem, according to science writers, is that Lehrer isn’t a scientist, nor are his editors or readers.

A Discover Magazine commenter says he spotted an error in a 2010 New Yorker article by Lehrer, but “no amount of emailing or writing” The New Yorker would correct it. Read more

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