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."

  • Peter Iglinski

    Peter Iglinski is the senior press officer for science at the University of Rochester.


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