Many thanks to Columbia University virologist and science communicator Vincent Racaniello for providing great blog fodder last week in his This Week in Virology interview with Chicago Tribune science writer Trine Tsouderos. For those who didn’t follow the discussion last week, Trine spoke of her approach to fact-checking her work published at the Tribune by running content past the scientist sources cited therein. (Thanks also to Dr. Racaniello for selecting the post as his weekly pick.)
I have to admit to a certain degree of humble pride that our discussion about journalist fact-checking of science writing drew such widespread attention. The comment thread reads like a Who’s Who of science writing – to avoid the risk of leaving anyone out, just take a scroll through the comment thread and click on a few of the commenters’ URLs.
Thank you to all of you practicing writers for your contributions. I plan to distill and arrange the discussion in some other format that’s more readable than the nested format of blog comment threads. Many thanks also to James Hrynyshyn and Maryn McKenna for suggesting that we pitch a session on this topic for the upcoming ScienceOnline2012 unconference here in North Carolina in January.
Readers might be surprised to learn that my post reflecting on Trine’s fact-checking with scientist sources took about 15 minutes to compose. This burst of writing was stimulated in large part because I was somewhat surprised by Trine’s revelation that fact-checking directly with interview subjects was her common practice.
The ethics that have been instilled in me over many years is that it is forbidden to show unpublished copy to a source and that getting approval for the speaker’s quotations is a violation of the professional standards of journalism.
Indeed, I had long been under the impression that journalistic practice forbids such post-interview review. My understanding was supported further by my own lack of experience in science writers checking with me on final passages of stories where I’ve been quoted (I often get interviewed for my expertise in drug safety, herbal and other dietary supplements, and drugs of abuse). One caveat, though: I am more commonly asked to comment on trends and the reports of others rather than the work generated in my own laboratory.
The comment thread includes a wide spectrum of views on the pros and cons of the source-review approach, the risks of doing so, and the dependence of the practice on the form of writing (e.g., deadline writing vs. books. vs. magazine articles).
But while writers by and large indicated that they do fact-check with sources on the scientific accuracy of their work, they do so with explicit ground rules that do not allow the source to alter the tone or conclusions (an excellent example was shared by Maryn McKenna).
My reflections were further influenced by a glorious week spent this summer learning from practicing science writers – famous and not-quite-yet-famous – at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop founded by George Johnson and Sandra Blakeslee.
While I’ve been blogging for over five years, I’ve spent part of the last two thinking about my craft in preparation for a book proposal. I’ve been fortunate to co-author two books (1, 2) for doctors, patients, and general health consumers but these have primarily been expert guides and not long-form narrative storytelling.
So I’ve been paying more and more attention to the storytelling aspect of science journalism and thinking more about science from the science writer’s viewpoint, due in large part to the influence of three writers and their most recent works: Maryn McKenna’s Superbug, Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
But the scientist in me was struck by the lack of input on last week’s post from scientists who have been interview subjects in stories by these and other science and health writers. My experience has been that while scientists and science writers have distinct though overlapping goals, scientist colleagues sometimes complain that writers “get it wrong.” As articulated by Maryn McKenna:
The thing that people should keep in mind — and this is so obvious as to be unstated to the journalists among us, but may be an unfamiliar thought to the scientist science-writers — is that we are not stenographers. The purpose of our existence is not to render your research only as correctly as possible, but to tell a story about a finding that puts it in context.
Journalism is by nature adversarial. With science stories, it is usually friendly adversity, but the writer and source have subtly different agendas.
This topic is probably worth its own separate giant comment thread, but the sometimes unhealthy degree of cooperation between scientists and the journalists reporting on them deserves scrutiny.
John also presented two devil’s advocate scenarios that logically caution against the direct fact-checking approach with scientist, both in the case of where the scientist disagrees or agrees with the writer’s conclusion.
Ed Yong, recognized for both the depth and accuracy of his writing, struck the middle of the road in noting that third-party fact-checking is important because, “we [journalists] don’t always know the ways in which we can screw up.”
So I’m interested how scientists view this discussion:
- If you’ve been interviewed for any mass media venue, how do feel about the experience?
Or perhaps more generally: when you read about mass media writing in your specific research discipline, how do you feel about the accuracy of the coverage?
I realize that these questions are imperfect because one can’t compare writing by a dedicated science journalist – say, Amy Harmon or Steve Silberman – with that of a local deadline writer who’s covering everything from the crime beat and state fair to the latest local research university press releases. But I’d like to at least gather some scientist feedback.
Addendum (4:05 pm, 25 Sept): Bora Zivkovic, Editor of the Scientific American blog network, mentioned to me earlier this week (and noted below) a provocative post he wrote in June 2009 entitled, The Ethics of the Quote. He speaks there from both the standpoint of journalist and scientist interviewee.