SciWriteLabs #3: TWiV co-hosts on arrogance vs. accountability

In the third installment of SciWriteLabs, TWiV co-hosts Vincent Racaniello and Alan Dove talk through some of their differences about the reporters’ responsibilities.

Previous posts in this series:
October 20: Reuters’ Ivan Oransky and Wired’s Adam Rogers on sources v. subjects & more on the factchecking debate
October 19: Kroll and Racaniello discuss the journalism/factchecking debate

SM: Vincent, in the comments of our first post, Alan Dove, one of your TWiV co-hosts, took issue with your summary of his post on the topic. He also said he had the impression you didn’t, in his words, “understand how unusual a resource he is. … very few basic researchers are accessible and accomodating enough to do full-scale article (or book) fact checking on short notice for pieces that aren’t about them or their work.” I very much agree: I think your generosity is unusual. When I speak with scientists about their frustration with science writing, I essentially tell them that if they’re not willing to work with reporters (even/especially if it’s not a story focusing on them), they don’t really have a right to complain.

Is this something you’ve spoken to your colleagues about?

Alan, you said in your comment that you fact-check when it seems “appropriate and necessary.” Can you give any specifics? Are these times when you showed a source a readback or excerpt and that blew up in your face — or times when you didn’t factcheck in this way and wish you had?

VR: I didn’t mean to single out Alan – but as my TWiV co-host I thought I could use his comments as a way of addressing all the writers who said ‘I never fact check’ (perhaps not those words, but the sentiment was there). Here are some of Alan’s statements that caused alarm.

“First, the source usually has to request it. Most of what I cover (biotech, microbiology, a little bit of public health, and related fields) is familiar territory for me, so I usually have a pretty good grasp on the concepts.”

I understand that Alan might have a good grasp of many fields (after all, he did obtain his Ph.D. in my laboratory) but I don’t see why the source has to request it. But even better (as Trine originally suggested) a third party should be consulted. I wonder when Alan thinks it would be appropriate to do this? After all, often you don’t know when you have made an error.

Alan also wrote “It’s my name on the byline, not theirs.” As I wrote the other day, that is not the point – it’s about teaching (if that is not what Alan is doing, the comment applies to others who have the same feeling).

AR: Okay, now I understand that Vincent was talking about my comment on this Take as Directed blog post rather than my more recent post on this issue on my own blog. I stand by both statements, but phrased things differently in the two places.

In my comment, I said I try to sort things out during the initial interview, or “in subsequent discussions with the source before I’ve written the article.” Some of this has to do with my writing process, which I gather is different from the way a lot of writers work. I don’t do first drafts. I try to complete all of my research and interviews, outline the story, and get my head around the main concepts. Then I start writing, and proceed from beginning to end, producing what I consider print-ready copy. Most of my fact-checking has already taken place before that step. The reason sources usually have to request readbacks from me, as opposed to my offering, is because I make sure I clarify everything with them before I sit down to write. As a result, I seldom get any useful feedback when I send excerpts from the final product.

That brings me to the “how do you know if you’re wrong?” question. The answer, of course, is that I don’t. Instead, I constantly ask myself how confident I am that what I’ve written is true. If I write that smallpox is a large DNA-containing virus, I really don’t need a fact check. Reporters with less virology training might. If I write that “top” and “bottom” quarks have the lowest masses of all subatomic particles, however, I’ll need to check that.

When I do check facts, I use a mixture of approaches. My first impulse is to search Google and PubMed, which resolve about 90% of my fact-checking needs. I evaluate the credibility of the sources on both searches carefully. If I’m unable to find anything credible enough to stake my reputation on, I’ll usually turn to my original source with follow-up questions (not readbacks). In very rare cases, I’m still slightly foggy on the phrasing even after both of those things. That’s when I’ll send unsolicited readbacks to a source to confirm that I’ve got it right. The few times I’ve tried finding and pestering an independent source, I’ve not had much luck. Academic researchers generally blow it off; corporate folks may try to help, but they need six weeks for their legal teams to clear their comments.

My statement about the byline wasn’t intended to mean that this is all about me. It is indeed about teaching. The byline, however, establishes accountability. If the story is wrong or confusing, readers will presume it’s my fault. As I said in my blog post, politicians grasp that concept intuitively, throwing reporters under the bus without hesitation. Scientists don’t have to be quite that aggressive about it, but they should certainly feel free to call us out when we screw up. Don’t just grouse to your colleagues about how “the media doesn’t get it.” Call or email the reporter. We’re usually easy to find, and if you can articulate the error we’ll generally take it seriously. If that doesn’t get the results you want, try a letter to the editor, or a comment on an online story, or a whole post on your own blog, or all of those things. Yes, you may find yourself explaining the same error several times to different reporters, but good journalism, like science, is ultimately self-correcting.

SM: I know this is something I keep coming back to you in these discussions, but I think one issue we’re facing here is that something that might seem appropriate in one context might not be feasible in another. For instance: last week, Trine spoke to the students in my science writing class at MIT. I know they were surprised (and relieved!) to learn that she can spend months at a time working on her stories. (Some of them worried that they would be expected to do that type of work in, say, a matter of days.) In that situation, there’s a lot more time and latitude to work out specific arrangements with sources and to request that people take a look at various sections for accuracy. If a reporter has a day or two to research, report, and write a story, it probably isn’t going to be realistic to do third-party checking after the piece is written.

I don’t want to speak for Alan — and he addresses this above — but to me, “it’s my name in the byline” doesn’t sound like arrogance, it sounds like a writer taking ultimate responsibility for his or her story. Sometimes, vetting a story can be used as a crutch — i.e., ‘Don’t blame me if it was wrong – I vetted it with scientists!’

I know this is off-topic a bit, but I’m also intrigued by Alan’s comment about his writing process, of which he wrote, “I gather [it] is different from the way a lot of writers work.” One thing that’s striking to me here is that there is no one way — or even a handful of generally accepted ways — to go about reporting and writing complicated stories. There are dozens and dozens of approaches. Perhaps that’s a good place to end for today — and we can pick up that thread in a future post.

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