I have long been a fan of Columbia University virologist, Dr. Vincent Racaniello. Vincent is an outstanding scientist who has also worked extensively make virology accessible to students with his own textbook and the award-winning Virology blog. For me, one of the best offshoot features of the blog has been his weekly podcast with Dick Despommier, This Week in Virology (TWiV).
This past week, TWiV Episode 149, spent the first 35 minutes or so interviewing Chicago Tribune science and medical writer, Trine Tsouderos, while at the International Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) in the Windy City. Because the netcast was held at the meeting, Vincent and the gang put together a very nice video of their panel discussion:
I’ve admired the writing of Trine Tsouderos for the last few years (you’ll learn that she is Norwegian-Greek and that her name is pronounced TREE-na soo-DARE-ose), particularly on the anti-vaccination movement and the questionable association of XMRV with chronic fatigue syndrome. I also learned some exciting homeboy things about her from the interview such as her undergraduate education at UNC-Chapel Hill in international studies, her taking organic chemistry for fun while she struggled with wanting to be a writer vs. go to medical school, and her first job covering minority and rural infectious disease issues in Wilson, North Carolina.
But what got a Twitter discussion going last night and this morning was Trine’s discussing her practice of sometimes running quotes, paragraphs, and even full articles past scientists she’s interviewed for fact-checking purposes. Particularly in cases where she is interviewing someone about complex original research literature, she expressed her motivation as the desire to get it right “because you can’t retract 300,000 newspapers.” (Trine, please correct me if I misrepresented what you said.)
The relevant section begins around 12:55 of the interview and runs through about 16:30 (but please do listen to the whole episode when you get a chance.).
She acknowledged that this is often a no-no in science reporting but I’ve now heard on Twitter from revered science journalists like John Rennie, Scott Hensley, and Maryn McKenna that some special cases may warrant such fact-checking and is often a sign of thoroughness. But Scott Hensley issued the cautionary tweet that, “Checking facts is 1 thing. Deputizing source as editor is another.”
Well, the response to this little Twitter banter leads me to think it may be valuable to bring the discussion out to more than 140-character bursts. For example, I know that Maggie Koerth-Baker, Science Editor at BoingBoing, has proposed a ScienceOnline2012 session on the problem of journalists growing too close to their sources as stimulated by her reading of the book, Wrong.
So, my dear professional science and health journalist friends: how do you negotiate this slope of prospectively sharing article content with scientist sources?
Please feel free to use more than 140 characters in your comments below.
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