Scares, breakthroughs and oddities

Journalists don’t often get it right on science stories.

By Clare Marshall

Science is incremental: each study builds on another to reach a certain goal.
Science is incremental: each study builds on another to reach a certain goal. (Cartoon courtesy: Jessie Marshall)

By Clare Marshall

Mary Anne White says it’s not easy for the media to cover her area of expertise.

“The public is interested in dinosaurs and fish, and stars. They’re not so interested in…physical chemistry.”

White, who answers science questions on Maritime Noon on CBC Radio, also does research at Dalhousie University about how heat affects materials. She remembers one interview with a local science journalist that didn’t go over well.

“He said stuff that I didn’t say whatsoever. I was away when the interview played, and my husband taped it and I was talking to him from wherever I was and he said, ‘You’re not going to like it when you hear it!’  He talked about how this sort of work could go in a certain direction that it wasn’t going to go in. I would never do another interview with him.”

The media sensationalizes science’s baby steps and turns them into leaps and bounds. They continue to make mistakes in science-related reporting because they don’t always speak the language of science. Instead, they categorize science stories as the scare, the breakthrough, and the oddity. According to Jim Handman, these categories are almost always wrong.

“The scare is never actually as scary as portrayed, the breakthrough is never really a breakthrough, and the oddity is actually something quite serious, that’s often dismissed as an oddity,” he says.

Handman is the senior producer of Quirks and Quarks on CBC Radio. The top ten reasons why the media can’t tell their asteroids from their ebolas is the subject of his public lectures at local universities in Toronto.

He says that journalists don’t often have a science background.

“Most of the science reporting in Canada is done by the general assignment reporters. There are very, very, very, very, very few dedicated, trained and experienced science reporters in Canada. In fact, I know them all and they could probably fit in my kitchen.”

According to the Labour Division at Statistics Canada, there were about 10,000 journalists employed in 2008. The Canadian Science Writers Association website says there are more than 450 members, but Handman says most of them are public information officers. He doubts there are more than 50 working science journalists in Canada—large kitchen.

Charles Petit maintains the Knights of Journalism Tracker website for MIT. He reads articles from different newspapers around the world and evaluates them on the website. He says that journalists must take possession of their stories.

“You have to ask yourself, what is the lede that best explains this? It’s not the one seen on the wire service, and it’s not the one offered by the press release. It’s how you prefer to write it. There’s no sense in having a free press and having multiple sources if everyone does the same thing.”

And since the media likes to sensationalize, Handman says, this can amplify the scare.

Journalists not being journalists

One such event was the Large Hadron Collider. It’s a particle accelerator, located 100 metres underground that stretches across the borders of Switzerland and France. Two concentrated beams of particles called hadrons will collide and create conditions similar to those after the Big Bang. The LHC will help scientists answer questions about what particles the universe is made of, and how they interact.

Peter Calamai speaking at a conference in Ontario. (Photo Courtesy: Peter Calamai)
Peter Calamai speaking at a conference in Ontario. (Photo courtesy: Peter Calamai)

On September 10, 2008, the first beams were circulated. But some media organizations were only interested in the possibility of the collide creating black holes that would end the world.

“That’s one of the saddest example where there’s some really important science, really, the most important science projects ever, and all people could do was focus on a completely bogus scare,” Handman says. “Scientists looked into it. There was not a single hope in hell that they could create a black hole that could escape and swallow the Earth.”

A fault in the collider caused a shut down for repairs a few days after the beams circulated. It started up again in November, 2009.

White says that journalists should double-check their facts before publishing their work. Some scientists even ask for the article before it goes to press to check for mistakes, even though she realizes that this isn’t an ethical practice for journalists.

“Scientists are really keen on not being embarrassed in front of their colleagues,” White says. “If you get one per cent of the facts wrong, your colleagues are going to be all over you.”

Another mistake that journalists make on science stories is they don’t ask enough questions.

“The journalist will lap it up like cat lapping up milk because they don’t understand enough to go, wait a minute, [it] doesn’t work this way,” says Peter Calamai, a founding member of the Canadian Science Writers Association and a retired science journalist.

Journalists must not forget the “H” when asking the five “W”s, Calamai says. Where a journalist might ask “how do you know this?” to any other person in any other field, he says this “spidey-sense” is turned off for science. Be it that they like something else or they think they don’t have the genes for it, Calamai says that journalists make a conscious effort to not understand science.

“It’s not journalists being bad. It’s not even journalists being dumb. It’s journalists not being journalists.”

Mice are not men

On the National Post website, a Global News update sweeps across the screen. The headline: “Cancer diagnosis breakthrough”. The video explains the science behind new nanotechnology that will improve the diagnosis of prostate cancer.

But it won’t be available to doctors for at least five years.

“The media wants the headline that says, Cancer Cured,” Handman says. “They don’t want the headline that says, ‘Doctors discovered pathway that could lead to a treatment that might in some future point help some people but not other people, in some cancers but not all’. That’s a really lousy headline.”

Journalists sometimes apply scientific results from mice to humans and call it a breakthrough. (Cartoon Courtesy: Jessie Marshall)
Journalists sometimes apply scientific results from mice to humans and call it a breakthrough. (Cartoon courtesy: Jessie Marshall)

Nicholas Bakalar says there are almost never any medical breakthroughs, because each study moves science in a certain direction.

“When a television station starts talking about a medical breakthrough, I automatically reach for my gun because I know that’s not what’s happening here,” says Bakalar, a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to the New York Times.

What is happening? Scientists conduct studies, and publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals. One study builds on another and adds to a collection of knowledge.

Most medical studies are done on mice, Handman says, and the media likes to project those results onto humans. He’s seen stories where it’s not until the sixth graph that the reader is told that the experiment was done on mice.

Recent articles in British newspapers like the Telegraph, the Mirror and the Daily Record tell of a new drug that can kill breast cancer stem cells. It’s not until the eighth, the thirteenth and the third paragraph respectively that it’s revealed the breast cancer stem cells were in mice. The drug hasn’t been tested in humans.

The Mirror sports the headline: “Cancer—the end?”

“Every single time some scientist manages to cure a tumor in a mouse, we get the headline, Cancer Cured,” Handman says. “And if I had a nickel for every headline that said Cancer Cured, I would be a very rich man.”

Filled with uncertainty

It’s a conversation that’s doomed from the beginning.

Calamai says that journalists are looking for a quick answer to plug into an existing story, but they’re not necessarily going to get it from scientists.

Jim Handman is the senior producer at Quirks and Quarks. (Photo Courtesy of Jim Handman)
Jim Handman is the senior producer at Quirks and Quarks. (Photo courtesy of Jim Handman)

He likens writing about science to decorating a Christmas tree. The story is the tree, and talking to the scientists is hanging up the ornaments.

“So they phone up scientists and get numbers that they can hang on the tree…and that’s it. They have no concept of what they’re actually working on and therefore their journalistic smarts that they’re supposed to have don’t act anywhere near as well as they should. It’s easier to flim-flam a journalist about something having to with science than it is in any other field.”

Journalists look for facts, or at least an opinion from their sources. But if you think you can call up a scientist and ask for declarations of certainty, think again, says Petit.

“You’ll never find more maybes in a paragraph than when you talk to scientists. Very seldom do you get the certainty of a politician or a preacher.”

Handman says when the media doesn’t understand a story, it sometimes falls into the “oddity” category.

In the Globe and Mail, one article named “Extreme makeover, geriatric version” packs four different studies into one story with different headings. Three or four paragraphs are devoted to each study.

“You see it all the time. Where science is just this filler,” Handman says.

What can be done?

Science writing is distinctive, Petit says, because it depends so much on the explanation of terms. Journalists have to listen to their sources and explain the science in an engaging way. Petit says that journalists often underestimate the public’s ability to absorb complex ideas.

One way to help readers absorb large amounts of dense information is to place resting places or “life-rafts”, as Calamai calls them, in your articles. It can be an anecdote, or a passage explaining one of the characters in your story.

“You can use metaphors or similes to explain how an atom works,” Petit says. “But sooner or later, you gotta get around to using a little bit of jargon, a little bit of chemistry to give the readers a sense of what the language, pace and texture of science is really like.”