SciWriteLabs #5.1: Nature’s Ananyo Bhattacharya on “Bad Science,” inverted pyramids, and information webs

This is the first of a multi-part #SciWriteLabs discussion with Ananyo Bhattacharya, the chief online editor of Nature. For those just tuning in, previous installments of the #SciWriteLabs series can be found here and a summary of the copy-/fact-checking debate can be found here.

SM: To start off — what made you want to write your piece in the Guardian?

AB: There had been a debate concerning copy-checking on the Association of British Science Writers’ mailing list a couple of months before David [Kroll]’s piece [on journalists checking copy with sources] appeared. I was quite shocked that some senior science writers seemed to be quite happy to advocate showing stories to sources (i.e., ‘the science is hard, we need to get the facts right, so it’s fine’). In-fact, some members of the list called me ‘arrogant’ for quite firmly stating that I felt the practice was unacceptable — and that I would think twice about accepting copy from freelancers whom I knew had checked stories with the scientists they were writing about. Around that time, I sent a pitch about the subject to the Guardian; I only followed up after I saw David’s post and realized that the issue had surfaced again.

SM: David Kroll and Vincent Racaniello both said they were surprised by how much attention the fact-checking debate has received (although they were surprised for different reasons); what’s been your reaction to all the hubbub?

AB: I wasn’t altogether surprised actually. On this side of the Atlantic, the standards of science journalism are under quite close scrutiny – particularly health reporting thanks to Ben Goldacre, whose “Bad Science” column is tremendously popular. This might be in part due to 1998’s MMR-autism vaccine scare — during which parts of the British press did not cover themselves in glory. After that, many scientists (and people with science degrees), seemed more attuned to the fact that some newspapers were doing a pretty poor job of reporting science and health stories. When science writer Martin Robbins published a piece in September 2010 that satirized the inverted pyramid approach to writing science news, it brought the house down.

So when I wrote my post suggesting that scientist-sources should keep their hands off a journalist’s copy, I was expecting some kind of reaction. When I read many of the comments on my piece though I did begin to wonder if I was in a minority. I was quite relieved when Ivan Oransky quoted Reuters’ official policy on your blog. Seems like I’m not alone in thinking this is an unacceptable practice!

SM: One distinction I’ve been trying to draw is the difference between checking copy with sources and subjects. In your Guardian post, I got the impression you were talking pretty explicitly about subjects. What are your feelings about a reporter showing parts/all of a story to an outside expert in that field?

AB: Absolutely. In the original piece I linked approvingly to a comment left by Ed Yong on David Kroll’s piece where he suggests doing exactly that – showing it to a scientist with no vested interest in presenting the work in a fabulous light. I also linked to a comment by Brendan Maher. He recommends reading out parts of the story to the original source if you’re not confident about some detail in the story rather than emailing them large chunks of the story. I’d also find that more acceptable.

Also, one last thing I want to add: I disagree a little with both you and Alistair Dove on the nature of science journalism and how information flows from scientists to the public. It’s never been as unidirectional as scientists like to think. Sociologists often describe it as more of a web.

SM: Let’s pick up on that in our next round — and go back to the initial coverage of the MMR/Wakefield debacle, which, as I told Alistair, I think offers a nice case study for the potential repercussions of truly shoddy science reporting…

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