Scientist copy-checking: Point-counterpoint at the Guardian

Should science journalists solicit scientist sources to fact-check article content prior to publication? Or do scientists have no more right to do so than, say, politicians previewing the latest criticism of their policies.

"Just try fact-checking with me, pal." The legendary Helen Thomas. Credit:

I have to admit that I had not quite anticipated the magnitude of interest in these questions when I first wrote about the topic in late September. I had been watching an episode of Vincent Racaniello’s excellent netcast, This Week in Virology (TWiV), from the the International Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC). The first 35 minutes saw Vincent and Rich Condit turn the tables to interview Chicago Tribune science and medical reporter, Trine Tsouderos. Trine is perhaps best-known of late for her coverage of the faulty link between XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome as well as the suspension of Dr. Mark Geier, a physician using a chemical castration drug to treat people with autism.

Trine mentioned in the interview that she often runs passages of complex science from her articles past the scientists she had interviewed for the piece. She doesn’t do so for approval or in any way to affect the tone of her writing but rather to be sure that she has interpreted the scientific findings accurate (my words, not hers).

The post was tweeted over 100 times and accumulated 110 comments from some of the top names in science journalism. A follow-up post asking for scientist’s to comment on their experiences brought further widespread interest.

By and large, most journalists agreed that very cautious pre-publication consultation with scientist sources was acceptable and often necessary, but with the ground rules well-articulated in advance. Others held that fact-checking is best done by interviewing a third-party not involved in the study being reported, a practice I see often, particularly for embargoes articles that give the writer enough advance time to conduct the interviews. A vocal minority held that a journalist should never ever run any content past a scientist interview subject.

The Guardian discussions
Shortly thereafter, the science desk at the Guardian hosted an op-ed by chief online editor for Nature, Ananyo Bhattacharya, who strongly supported this minority viewpoint. Aptly entitled, Scientists should not be allowed to copy-check stories about their work, Ananyo suggests that the story suffers particularly in the case of highly controversial topics. Guardian writer and blogger Martin Robbins pointed out in the comments that scientists can often be as ego- and spin-driven as political figures.

Yesterday, the Guardian hosted a counterpoint view from Drs. Petroc Sumner, Frederic Boy, and Chris Chambers from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. The professors held that science reporting is different: the extensive and anonymous peer-review process of scientific reports is not duplicated in any other realm. For example, with political reporting, the writer is serving the same role as peer-review does for science.

Update: Shortly after I put up this post Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus book and PLoS blogposted a most excellent synopsis of this discussion in the context of his current work teaching in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. Therein, he describes the psychologists’ op-ed as “a jaw-dropping mixture of ignorance and arrogance,” with reliance on the scientific-peer review system as, “the single worst argument in this whole debate.” My next paragraph sounds a bit weak in comparison.

Both articles have their merits and drawbacks. Some of the disagreement seems to arise from the definition of copy-checking or fact-checking. I think that all agree that any input from a scientist that alters the tone or conclusions of an article are unacceptable. Nor should scientists expect that a reporter is obligated to change anything in the article based on their review (as illustrated in the ground rules used by infectious disease journalist and Superbug author, Maryn McKenna).

If you’re not already tired from reading this recap, check out the articles and comments at the Guardian:

Just a final wry observation: the journalist Bhattacharya was kind enough to link to my original post and cite me by name in the second paragraph as “pharmacologist David Kroll.”

However, my scientist colleagues were only able to manage a hyperlink.

Update #2 (12 October, 10:50 pm) – I don’t know how I missed this yesterday (oh yeah, work and family) but Emily Willingham at The Biology Files has an exquisite, orderly, and biting critique of Sumner et al.

Even less excusable is that I missed Alistair Dove writing at Deep Sea News way back on September 29 about Ananyo Battacharya’s article. Another great comment thread as well as Alastair’s twitter discussion (as @para_sight) with Ananyo.

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5 Responses to Scientist copy-checking: Point-counterpoint at the Guardian

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  3. kujirakira says:

    Unlike many of the other commenters here, I have no impressive credentials or work history to speak of. I’m merely a vet using benefits to finish a BS in Engineering.
    However, I’ve been very bothered by the issue of journalism in regards to science coverage over the past year.

    It seems to me the fundamental issue is that modern journalism only has 2 goals: to make money for itself and serve the personal ends of it’s limited community and/or direct benefactors.
    That is to say, journalism has no ethics nor morals. Journalists will often hide behind their need to craft a story for the public well being, but as I will demonstrate that’s a red herring. They have no consideration for anything which is not convenient for themselves.
    For journalists, the ends often justify the means — and the ends themselves are usually the lowest common denominator (ie: money). Insofar as they are interested in the public opinion, it’s generally only in the form of how they can manipulate public opinion for the monetary gain of their benefactors and investors.
    At best journalists (ab)use their privilege to (mis)inform the public about their personal views on politics.
    At worst they’re nothing but shills that’d write a 5-page expose on their own mother for a couple bucks.

    This might seem all a little over the top, but I believe it’s what the situation demonstrates. My words may seem cruel or uncalled for, but they are supported by the facts.
    So let’s get to some examples.

    - Following the tsunami in Japan this year, the media has shown it’s true colors. There is no such thing as “yellow journalism” — it’s pretty much all yellow journalism.
    Despite few, if any, papers even having a single person that can speak or translate Japanese papers have misreported all sorts of things.
    If they had any sense of ethics, you’d think maybe the fact that they’re completely ignorant about what’s going on and have no ability to get information (let alone verify facts) would keep them from going too far.
    Instead, we can see that they saw the lack of information and verifiable facts to the public as an opportunity to make it up as they go. They used the language barrier to their benefit, knowing there would be virtually no oversight or anyone to offer a counterpoint.

    It may seem that I’m getting off-subject but bear in mind the overwhelming majority of these are regarding journalists reporting on nuclear energy. Their use of scientific material is scarce, and often all they do include is discredited “Media Scientists” like Chris Busby or Michio Kaku.
    The creation of this breed of one-stop-shop pseudo-expert scientists and their willingness to provide absurd sound bites deserves a discussion all on its own.
    As many have noted in the comments throughout this series of blog entries, journalists’ primary job is to find a story. Whether that story reflects any facts at all isn’t relevant. Whether that story is actually in the interest of the public isn’t relevant either. The only question they care about is if the story sells, if it’s in the political interest of the company’s backers, and finally if it’s in the political interest of the journalist or their editor. Nuclear fallout mania sells. Nuclear fallout mania is in the interests of big oil, coal, and other energy companies in the US and England. Nuclear fallout mania is also likely to be aligned with the journalists’ political agenda.
    My personal favorite was MSNBC, on the evening of the disaster, juxtaposing headlines of potential nuclear disaster with the burning refinery plant in Chiba. That’s a very inventive way to cover the oil indstury’s tracks by equating environmental damage by their facilities to nuclear power.
    One of the most egregious but poignant examples of this debacle comes from CNN. Mind this is supposed to be the most level-headed of our news stations in America. For several weeks they introduced one Jim Walsch as a “nuclear expert from MIT” on a daily basis. Several of his comments struck me as incongruent, so I looked him up at MIT.
    His credentials demonstrate that this man is no expert in nuclear energy. His degree is essentially in international relations, with some history regarding public policy with respect to nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran. How that makes him an expert on boiling water reactors in Japan is a mystery. It hadn’t struck me until then that CNN never mentioned his degree or called him “Doctor” or otherwise. They just called him an “expert from MIT”. That’s not just misleading or accidental. It’s downright deceptive.

    Meanwhile, the real experts at MIT have been keeping an excellent blog on the developments in Japan backed by science. I can’t imagine that CNN couldn’t have got a single qualified individual from MIT to go on air and discuss the matter with them. Especially seeing how meticulously MIT scientists worked on their blog to dispel the fear-mongering and rampant misinformation the likes of CNN and other journalists were profiting off of. The obvious conclusion for me is that the real experts weren’t sensationalist for CNN’s crafted story. A story bereft of facts and rife with deliberate misinformation and fear-mongering.

    - Nor is this case of spinning science for a political agenda with no consideration of the impact to public health and well being limited to Western media reporting on disasters in foreign countries. In February 2006, an independent think tank accused British media of sensationalizing science. Specifically on MMR vaccines.

    At about the same time, the badscience blog was covering media sensationalism over the bird flu “vaccine” (which he points out isn’t really a vaccine, but an antibiotic.) In the comments, one self-professed reporter going by “Paul” unwittingly spelled out how the journalist scam works so succinctly.

    Paul said,
    February 21, 2006 at 3:35 am
    Re: Media crappiness over bird flu coverage

    As a television news hack on the “bird flu beat” (love the way that rolls off the tongue) I can assure you that any attempt I make to tone down my headlines is swiftly obliterated by editors insisting that “deadly” be added as a prefix to any occurence of H5N1. Although, to be honest, it *is* a deadly virus — just probably not as deadly as Sky et al would like you to believe.

    PS — There’s a biotech firm in Russia that says that “alpha-inteferon” applied nasally is an effective prophylactic against contracting all types of influenza. Is this total bollocks? My immunology isn’t up to scratch…

    pv said,
    February 21, 2006 at 9:22 am
    Paul, lots of things are deadly but they don’t have the word “Deadly” incorporated into their names – arsenic, paracetamol, chlorine bleach, alcohol, driving on public roads. Obviously, according to your editors, the public isn’t as intelligent as them and no-one is aware yet that bird flu can be deadly; particularly to birds. Don’t you think the press. tv et al are being a tad patronising when they do this? Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t the idea to hype it up so that people are overly worried or panic? Then there’s more stuff to report on, like public opinion and comments informed by the idiotic press, complaints about the availability of the non-vaccine “vaccine”, the dangers of eating chicken, how it’s all the fault of the government and all that crap. Isn’t that what is meant by news management? Increased circulation and more cash for the press. That’s the way it’s always worked.
    Incidentally, how many people have died on Britains roads since 1st January? And how many as a result of accidents in the home? And how many have died worldwide (that’s “globally” in modernspeak) from Deadly Lethal H5N1 Strain of Avian Bird Flu since the start of the outbreak?
    This is Britain’s heroic news media, informing and protecting Britain’s plucky news readers, viewers and listeners. Scuse me while I puke.
    And I know journalists who complain that they (collectively) have a reputation for dishonesty and untrustworthiness. I really can’t think why.

    MikeTheGoat said,
    February 21, 2006 at 12:33 pm
    Probably also worth considering the thosuands that die each year in this country from plain old, boring, normal human flu.

    Paul said,
    February 21, 2006 at 12:39 pm
    Sure, I agree… but arsenic, paracetamol, chlorine et al, are not novel threats; nor are they the result of an infectious disease that’s causing billions of dollars worth of real economic damage.
    I don’t want to be an apologist for the “evil media”, but when you take this, combined with non-governmental agencies that don’t depend on circulation for funding — including the WHO, for chrissakes — making public statements to the effect that up to 150 million could die if H5N1 acquires human-to-human transmissibility, surely there’s some merit in reporting this?
    Not to gloat or anything, but as one of the (I imagine) few science hacks who at least skims the discussion sections of relevant journal articles when I put together a package, I’m not too uncomfortable with using the phrase “deadly bird flu”.
    But then: these are the same editors who’ve told me in the past: “Make it scary. People like that.” So I’m torn. I hafta say, I do genuinely think there’s a bit of a parasitic relationship between the consumers of mass media and a good, terryfing story. People get off on it. Blaming the journalists as being “untrustworthy (although loads of them are)” seems like a bit of a cop-out.

    Yes, it’s such a copout to blame the journalist getting paid to deliberately scare-monger the public regardless of the consequences. So long as you can make a buck doing it, we shouldn’t blame you at all.
    Journalists have no sense of responsibility for their own work or the consequences of their ill-conceived deeds.

    - A more light-hearted and recent example includes the potential discovery of neutrinos allegedly going faster than the speed of light. Immediately there were articles everywhere claiming Einstein’s theories may be under fire. Yet any half-wit with a passing interest in Physics (ie: myself) could have informed them of Entanglement, which demonstrates that 2 photons travelling in opposite directions can somehow “interact” with eachother instantaneously (ie: faster than the speed of light).
    Einstein himself realized this issue and wrote about it in 1935 during the phase in which he was attempting to discredit quantum physics. This “paradox”, along with several others, stood as a challenge to quantum physics for many years until the effects of each “paradox” have now been verified to support it and prove Einstein wrong. Entanglement is now the key concept used in operable Quantum Cryptography systems. Imagine, 2 particles communicating with eachother instantaneously makes it impossible for somebody to tap into the connection without changing the states of those particles instantaneously, thereby alerting you instantaneously to any possible interception of your secure connection.
    This isn’t a hidden technology or principle in Physics. It’s a widely discussed one that you can find quite a bit of information on, say, wikipedia. We’ve entered a stage where often times wikipedia is a better source than the articles it’s supposed to be referencing. Even with all the open-source ability to edit and plagiarize it at will, it’s still more accurate and better researched than journalists.

    - Next we have an article where a journalist got a quote from a scientist whose agenda conveniently lined up with their agenda. It’s bad enough the scientist involved will outright lie about the contents to benefit his political agenda, but the journalist also did absolutely no fact-checking.
    That’s because journalists don’t care about facts. They only care about the story.
    Here we have Dr. Gales’ allegation that the Institute of Cetacean Research is engaging in “bizarre”, “esoteric” research aimed at cross-breeding whales.
    Dr. Gales greatly hurts his own reputation. Either he has a very poor understanding of science and is incompetent, or he is displaying that he has no sense of objectivity or professionalism. No matter how you slice it, it’s a very dirty and dishonest thing to do. But it equally reflects on the journalist who obviously didn’t check any facts. They printed the quote and story as-is because it’s convenient for their personal political agenda, the political agenda of their paper, and the beef industry in Australia which exports to Japan.
    Needless to say, the research Dr. Gale was referring to has nothing to do with cross-breeding animals. Female eggs from cows are known to be capable of adapting to host other species’ dna, which could be used for a wide range of applications.
    It only takes reading the abstract to discover Dr. Gale’s obvious lie and misrepresentation. But the journalist didn’t even ask for a reference to the research being questioned, let alone try to interview any of the original researchers or their organization. Once again, journalists use the language barrier and freedom from counter-arguments to overtly lie and misinform the public for their own ends.

    - An article from the Guardian which directly touches on this debate.
    「Churnalism is a real problem in science reporting, to the extent that it feels a bit boring to keep going on about it, but the wider issue is this lack of actual, well, journalism. As I said in that piece; if journalists aren’t contributing original reporting, or providing context, or challenging statements made by university press officers, or even just adding informed opinion, then they’re not really doing journalism. 」

    I don’t agree with Mr. Robbins idea of journalism at all. In fact I’d say it’s the exact opposite. Myth-making stories and headlines shouldn’t be what journalists do. Getting the facts right and accurately conveying information to the public is what journalism *should* be. Not living out your own personal Walter Mitty fantasy. Granted getting the facts right isn’t as sexy or fun as a Danny Kaye flick, but the issue to me is that journalism often claims to be working for the public good. If that’s the case, then their job is definitely the former. If it’s not, they should at least have the decency to drop 1 pack of lies, that any of it has to do with the public good, and admit they’re no different than ego-driven politicians, lawyers, and used-car salesmen. Because, as it stands right now, they aren’t any better than those groups.

    I’m not posting all this just to complain, as I believe there are several solutions.
    - As another commenter noted, this entire debate is why scientists should get into blogging themselves. Control your own story where your credibility is dependant on your own statements and work in context.

    - A lot of online blogs and articles discuss how scientists can’t communicate effectively. But I beg to differ. The MIT blog, for one, demonstrates otherwise in my opinion. Most scientists can accurately discuss their work in generalities that are palatable to the public vocabulary. No, the real communication issue is that scientists rely heavily on their own credibility. Whereas journalists have little to no sense of credibility. Nobody pays attention to the corrections hidden away in Wednesday’s paper to the headline articles on the front of Monday’s.
    Similarly it’s easy to stealth-edit an online article, such as the NY Times did.
    As a result, scientists have to learn how to speak to unethical hacks with no scrupels that will twist anything they say out of context to fit their agenda. Now that, that requires a lot of preparation and training that frankly nobody likes to deal with. The same trepadation and hackneyed statements have become necessary in sports too. The problem isn’t the scientists, though it’s convenient for the media to fall back on good old fashioned stereotypes when it’s convenient for them. The problem is that you can’t expect journalists to have any common human decency. In fact, everyone is pretty much forced to assume they’re as snaky and dishonest as politicians.

    - In line with the above statements, basic science education needs to improve. That’s a whole discussion of it’s own which also ties into our economy and place in the world, but it’s relevant to mention here. With improved science in High School, and most importantly — breaking the stigma that science is difficult — readers will be less dependant on the uncredentialed “experts” hacks manufacture. The current structure, where blind journalists interpret and spin the facts to fit their agenda lead the blind public by the nose.

    - The media as entertainment business isn’t going to improve unless we hold their feet to the fire. The only thing any of them understands is money. Journalists are a dime a dozen. Judiciously select which ones to communicate with and establish a rapport with them.
    If they’re not willing to do even the minimal fact-checking that sparked this debate, why bother with them? If they’re not willing to let you record and print the interview on your own blog after the story goes to print, why bother with them? The journalist ethics and “principles” in the Guardian op-ed be damned. They have no principles. Pick out the few decent human beings amongst the lot and work with them.

    - Delegate some media responsibilities to graduate students or interns just starting out. I’m on the fence about this one, but it gives both the graduate student and the research scientist some excuses for when the journalist inevitably messes it up.

    It’s true that scientists need more exposure with the public, but dealing with dishonorable businesses isn’t the only way to get that done. Furthermore, it’s a sellers market for scientists. Journalists aren’t rare. I believe it’s best to make sure the information is printed correctly in 1 paper than wrong in 20. These days, it’s journalists who need scientists to add credibility to their hackneyed spin-jobs, I mean stories.

    Why enable the majority of journalists to make a dishonest living abusing your hard-earned credentials and work so they can spin and manufacture stories convenient for the political or fear-mongering agenda of the day?

  4. laura says:

    no one here is discussing a middle ground, and that’s what’s required. its not all or none.

    what could possibly be the harm in a journalist shooting through some dot points of the scientific interpretation only to the scientist? it means less interpretation without the scientist having full control of the journos work.

    come on guys, we’re scientists, it’s our job to come up with solutions to seemingly impossible problems. this is just another one.

  5. kujirakira says:

    I think the middle ground is exactly what Trine stated she was doing.

    In the face of hardliners sticking to their so-called “journalistic principles”, I merely thought it was pertinent to discuss just what those principles are and how much those principles should be respected. Not only from the perspective of scientists, but society at large.
    It’s my contention that the current methodology of journalism in America, and most Occidental nations by extension, is a disservice to 21st century society. As a result, invoking their “principles” as an excuse to forgo compromise and treat people however they like for their agenda story is a non-starter.

    In short, journalists are full of malarkey. Nobody should feel compelled to work under their irrational and one-sided scheme. If they can’t compromise, then simply don’t compromise.