Introducing SciWriteLabs. Today’s installment: Kroll and Racaniello discuss the journalism/factchecking debate

Today marks the one-month anniversary of David Kroll’s blog post, “Trine Tsouderos on This Week in Virology: When do you fact-check article content with sources?” Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a series of discussions with people who have figured prominently in the ensuing debate. I will be mining reader comments for ways to shape the conversations still on tap – so please, don’t stop interacting. (For anyone coming to this topic for the first time, here’s a good beginning-of-the-episode recap of what’s happened so far.) Today’s installment features Kroll and Vincent Racaniello, a Columbia University virologist who hosts the TWiV podcast.

These will also serve to launch SciWriteLabs, a new project which I hope will be an ongoing venue for researchers, reporters, public officials, and anyone else interested in science and science writing to debate the issues of the day. More on that soon…

Without further ado, let’s get to today’s discussion.

SM: David and Vincent, you two have helped launch an incredible discussion about the appropriate ways for journalists and scientists to interact. I want to try to continue this conversation in a way that’s more focused than a free-for-all in the comments section but more fluid than a single-author blog post or newspaper column. One idea I had was to do something kind of akin to Slate‘s old “Book Club” feature. You two are coming at this from different perspectives: David, you’ve had training as a scientist, worked in industry and academia, and are these days focusing more and more on your writing; Vincent, you’re a working scientist who has been at the forefront of scientists communicating directly with the public. I don’t think either of you anticipated the reverberations from David’s original blog post. What has it been like to watch this unfurl? Has anything made you re-think/re-examine where you were coming from?

VR: I’m actually appalled and amazed by some of the reactions of science writers to Trine’s remarks on TWiV. Arrogance was one of the first words that came to my mind. One reason for this reaction is that I’ve been spoiled by the wonderful writers I’ve interacted with who take the fact-checking route. Back in 2009 I was contacted by Rebecca Skloot who was just about to finish her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. After corresponding for a few days she asked if I would check her manuscript to make sure it was scientifically accurate. After I was finished I learned from Rebecca that book writers often don’t check their facts – they don’t have the budget. But she found me and I was happy to do it. Sometime later I met Trine who as you know is also fond of fact-checking. Dave Tuller has also run some of his statements past me. But I suppose these are the exceptions, or so I would conclude from the comments on David’s blog post.

Let me go over some of the reasons given for not fact-checking science writing. One is ‘there is no time.’ It seems to me that if you keep a list of reliable scientists on hand you can always find one to help you out. Trine has asked for my help an hour before a deadline, and if I have the time I’ll do it. I understand that this is not always possible but why not try?

Another reason – ‘it’s my byline.’ This is ego shining through. See the last paragraph.

My TWiV co-host, a science writer, wrote that he doesn’t fact check because he usually get things right. How would you know? Explain to me how, after working on viruses for 30+ years, I still get virus-related things wrong. And you are telling me that you can write in all kinds of science fields and get it all right? I just don’t believe it. The fact is, all science writers are going to make a mistake, probably more often than they think. Much more often than a scientist who works in the field and thinks about it every day and understands all the nuances and implications. Don’t tell me that it doesn’t matter for what you are writing or who you are targeting – if you don’t get the facts right, you are failing.

Another writer said that journalists who write about politics don’t fact check. Well, science isn’t politics (although politicians do like to meddle in science, and are messing it up – but I diverge). Science is a fact-based field. If you don’t get the facts right, you can’t do science, and you can’t write about it. There is no debating here. If you don’t know that Bacillus anthracis is not a virus, you aren’t helping anyone (it happens far more often than you would think).

In the end, it all comes down to this – you are writing about science to educate the public. Not to make money, or win prizes, or become famous. It is to help pass on the wonderful, exciting advances about our understanding of life (and viruses) to people who are curious. If you don’t get the facts right, you are not educating the public. And if you don’t want to fact check your science writing, then write about something else for a living.

SM: You’re definitely right about books not being fact-checked. (I find it simultaneously hilarious and distressing that many magazines use books as an acceptable form of verification.) That’s a whole other topic…

I think part of the emotion — and misunderstanding — that has arisen stems from different definitions/conceptions of fact-checking. Trine is a world-class reporter — and also tough as nails. It sounds like some other writers have asked you to confirm/review/discuss things they’ve been preparing for publication not because you’re the subject of the article but because they respect your knowledge. One thing that makes people (read: journalists) nervous is when there’s a feeling that reporters should allow sources/subjects to review stories about them. For instance: Compare an imaginary feature story about you/TWiV with, say, one of Trine’s pieces on XMRV. I think it’s easier for people to understand the potential utility of checking the latter than it is the former.

It’s interesting that you alighted on the arrogance of journalists who insist they shouldn’t ever check stories. One of the things that got my dander up was the flip-side: the arrogance of scientists (as exemplified by this Guardian piece) calling for journalists to act as stenographers. (I know I’m oversimplifying here…)

DK: Before I jump in, I want to go back to Seth’s original questions since my post started this latest, robust round of discussion. I love Vincent’s This Week in Virology and while I don’t listen as often as I should, I use his material often when I teach my half of the Immunology & Virology class at North Carolina Central University.

But TWiV 149 was special because it was a video interview with a science and medical reporter I admire greatly, Trine Tsouderos – her work on the Geiers and XMRV has been superb and she’s tougher than a boiled owl.

When I heard Trine say that she often has some scientist interviewees review quotes or passages of her work, I was so surprised that I immediately fired up my PLoS blog and started writing while still listening to the rest of the interview. Why? Because I had always been told that journalists never run copy past their interview subjects regardless of whether the topic was highly technical. I tend to get interviewed quite a bit as an expert in drug action and drug safety but the only times I’ve been able to review copy was when it was being done for one of my institutions like Colorado or Duke – and I could hear in the PIOs voice that every journalist bone their body was cracking under the institutional weight of having to offer me a chance to check my quotes and background.

With regard to the reader response, I expected some but perhaps not the magnitude and scope of the discussion. That I dropped everything and started writing the post is indicative of its importance to me but that doesn’t always follow with blog traffic and comments. On the other hand, when the comments started rolling in, I felt a bit redeemed that I did indeed hit on something that interested those of you who do this for a living.

What surprised me most in the comments to that initial post was that most of these pro writers concurred with Trine that under very specific conditions, they will consult with interview subjects – and even show them copy – to assure the correct interpretation of some aspect of their piece. Maryn McKenna was awesome – she even shared with us her agreement with sources for doing such a thing. Adam Rogers offered to share what they allow at Wired. Then, there was George Johnson who upheld the journalistic tradition that nothing gets reviewed by sources. And Ed Yong, always the measured gentleman, suggested his approach to fact-checking: soliciting a researcher in the field who is unrelated to the original work. What also came out was that we need to be careful not to confuse fact-checking with copy-checking.

SM: That’s interesting – It sounds like your impression that reporters never share any information with sources before publication didn’t draw a distinction between subjects and sources. This also might seem like splitting hairs, but as a journalist, I think there’s a significant difference between my asking a source if s/he will go over something I’ve written and a source asking me to show them an article before it is published (I almost wrote “before it appears in print” – how quaint!). The latter implies approval; the former is, I think, more subject to the particulars of that interaction.

VR: It’s certainly possible that there is some miscommunication here. When I first read David’s initial blog post at PLoS, I wondered if in fact many of the writers commenting had actually listened to the TWiV episode. Because in that episode Trine made it very clear that she makes sure to get the science correct in her articles by consulting experts. It’s not a matter of writing a story about me, and then asking me if it is right. It’s about, say, writing a story on XMRV (not involving any of my work) and then asking me if the science is correct. If you don’t get this then I could see some writers bristling at the thought of having scientist check every word of their stories. That is not what this is about.

I wonder if the entire conversation would have gone differently if this had been stated up front, rather than depending on people to listen to the TWiV episode (I realize they are all long and only dedicated science geeks listen to all of it).

I can understand why writers would get ticked at being told to be stenographers. But that isn’t what Trine was saying.

These issues taken care of, I do believe there were some writers who understood what Trine was saying and still didn’t agree.

DK: Vincent, yes, I also worried that even my brief paraphrasing did not do justice to this part of the interview with Trine. I had the ulterior motive of encouraging readers to get a glimpse of the outstanding resource that is TWiV! (And this particular episode was not only for geeks!)

So, I felt it was an injustice to even write a transcript of Trine’s comments since the video was available in its full context. But I agree with you that the comment thread might have progressed differently had I introduced the topic more fully.

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