How to repair a fraying relationship between scientists and reporters?

Raise your hand if you think journalists often mangle science? Overhype a study? Inject “false balance” into stories? The litany of real and perceived journalistic sins is a long one.

You can put your hand down now.


But is all the constant carping and criticism fair? One science journalist thinks not. Ananyo Bhattacharya, the chief online editor for Nature, has published an essay in the Guardian, titled, “Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism.” The piece responds to common complaints from scientists about journalism: misleading headlines, cherry-picked quotes, and caveats being left out of stories, to name a few.

Bhattacharya’s essay triggered an immediate Twitter and blog storm. Many, scientists and writers alike, charged that Bhattacharya was rationalizing or downplaying shoddy journalism practices. One scientist dashed off an acerbic rejoinder titled, “Nine ways journalists demonstrate they don’t understand science.”

At the Discover magazine website, science writer Ed Yong found the conflict between scientists and journalists “tedious.” He wrote: “We’ve been doing this for years now, with no progress. Two sides, shouting at each other, shouting past each other, resorting to caricatures, and making no/little attempt at mutual understanding.”

Bhattacharya responded to some of his critics on Twitter and also in the comment thread of Yong’s post, where he stood his ground: “Scientists and others must learn to judge science journalism by the standards of journalism — and not by the standards of science or anything else ….”

This schism between scientists and journalists often flares up in the climate debate, as it did during an AAAS panel in 2011. In this case, there were testy exchanges between two science reporters (for NPR and AP) and climate scientists, who couldn’t agree on what factors constituted a legitimate story. As with the larger standoff between climate contrarians and the climate-concerned community, the squabbling between journalists and climate scientists seems like a clash of cultures, with the two sides unable to escape the clutches of their own conventions.

What is tenaciously contested is a portrayal of science and its findings. Here, Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist, offers some useful advice in a recent interview, when he says it is more important “that people get a sense of the science as a work in progress, rather than one particular message or piece of content knowledge getting hammered home.”

Schmidt goes on to say that climate news stories often lack context and fail to convey “science as a process.”

Of course, journalism in the digital age is now considered very much to be a dynamic, continuous process, too. Is not news every bit as provisional as the latest science discovery? Perhaps there is more common ground for scientists and journalists to build on than they appreciate.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.