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    Mike Spear said:

    Matt, you’re pronably going to get some flak on this one I bet, but welcome to 2012 boys and girls. A world where the dedicated beat reporter is an endangered species. and it isn’t just the science reporter that is under envionmental stress. It is the objective and well schooled journalist covering politics, business, economics, law, or whatever else you want. Perhaps the only surviving members of the beat reporter classification are the sports and entertainment reporter but arguably their gene pool is rather shallow and not going to be confused with the straight-up journalists of the world.
    Your’re right Matt, a dedicated science reporter with the knowledge and experience should read the science papers, but as is rightly pointed out many journalists have neither the time, nor the expertise to dissect a paper. They do however have the experience to ask the right questions and to take the position of their audience to find out exactly what is significant. They also have the wisdom and integrity to ask for clarification when they don’‘t understand and to get help framing the story in lay terms.
    And they can do that without having read the paper.
    They can’t do it without talking to the scientist which is what journalist and reporters do. They ask questions to gain understanding. The science community often peers out from a bit of an ivory tower and frets about not being understood and feel that if only everyone would read their papers all would be good. That deficit model of communication just doesn’t hold true.
    The modern reality is there is too much information being covered by too few experience journalists in ALL fields.
    Nice post Matt and at the risk of a little self-promotion I did a post along these lines during the Science Online event. http://genomealberta.ca/blogs/dont-shoot-the-media-or-the-scientist.aspx for another take on the science and media relationship.

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    Zen Faulkes said:

    So journalists are too busy to read the paper… but not too busy to contact the researchers and ask an extensive set of questions?

    If there’s enough time to contact the researchers and ask a lot of good questions to the researchers, isn’t there enough time to read the key parts of a paper? I don’t care terribly which of those things journalist does, because they both require putting effort into the story.

    How about instead of “read the paper,” we substitute, “due diligence” as something science journalists should do.

    Also, I’d like to emphasize a qualifier in my quoted tweet: “broadly.” I’m a professional biologist, and I often struggle understanding papers that I blog about. But I do think that I have to have some understanding of the paper in broad strokes before I can have a hope of writing anything sensible.

    Another related issue: If a journalist isn’t reading the original articles, who’s making the call about what’s worth writing about in the first place? From the description above, it’s often the editors. Who are the editors taking their cues from, then? Probably press releases. And the result is a weekly monoculture, with the same small number of stories showing up in a whole bunch of venues.

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    Elaine Schattner said:

    This is a really serious issue in health journalism because it affects real patients’ decisions.

    People are influenced by what they read/see/hear in the news. If health care journalists don’t read the original papers and don’t know the limits and problems with those stories, and simply refer to experts who frame the story according to their views, they may misrepresent the facts, which influences informed decision-making.

    The funny thing is, I’ve met editors who don’t want experts writing copy – not because some doctors use too much jargon, which happens, but because they know too much.

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    Heather Handley Goldstone said:

    As a scientist-turned-journalist, I’d say you’ve hit the nail on the head, Matt.
    If they’re really honest with themselves, I bet most scientists would have to admit that they don’t read the original research papers behind most discoveries outside their field of expertise. That’s what newspapers, popular science magazines, and the news sections of Nature and Science are for. And not just because of a lack of time.
    Jargon – or, to be more diplomatic, technical language – is a communication barrier between experts in different fields as much as it is between experts and the lay public. Expecting any one person to be able to speak all technical languages fluently enough to read and understand the papers is unrealistic.
    Personally, as a journalist, I do try to read the papers I report on. Sometimes, I can get enough from my own reading to write about the paper. But most of the time, I end up wanting or needing to talk to the researcher. And the questions I ask aren’t necessarily much different whether I’ve understood the paper or not. I guess I think of it more as a courtesy than anything else – a sign that I’ve done my homework and gleaned as much information as I can on my own before asking a scientist to spend his/her time with me.

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    Matt Shipman said:

    I think the bigger challenge, for many journalists, isn’t about making the time to read the paper — but about their ability to read the paper. As I said in the post, I think any science writer (reporter or otherwise) should read the paper. However, there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually understand what they’re reading. Some papers are more accessible than others, depending on the amount of technical language used. Worse still, it’s possible that they’ll THINK they understand it, while being wildly wrong.

    Getting study authors to walk a reporter through the paper can help address the issue, because the reporter can ask for an explanation whenever terms or concepts crop up that they’re unfamiliar with.

    Again, this post isn’t about defending the practice of not reading journal articles. Most, if not all, reporters would love to be able read and understand all of the source material. The fact remains that many of them simply don’t have the training to read articles on materials science, particle physics, microbiology, etc. Yet they are still being asked to write about those things.

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    Mike Spear said:

    A few additional points based on the comments:
    A good reporter usually wouldn’t do a story based entirely on the primary source and would follow up with an interview anyway, but as Matt noted in his comment to Zen, it is often a matter of expertise, not simply the time factor.
    I do like the suggestion that it is really all about due diligence, no matter how you put the story together, because in the end it is the accuracy that counts.
    As Heather has so rightly noted, we can’t all speak all technical languages. When it comes to a reporter who one day will be doing a story on the latest out of their university science faculty and the next day a story on the latest transportation woes facing their city, that jargon challenge is even more magnified.
    Blogging about a research paper is not necessarily journalism. You can blog your heart out based on the paper you read, never talk to the author, and only be read by your immediate, and often niche community.
    If you are reporter for the daily newspaper or the six o’clock news in a major market that is a whole new world compared to a blogger. Not a lot better, not a lot worse, just a lot different. You have everything from journalistic guidelines, to time constraints, to the necessity of fitting your main channel. Not to mention the online feature you probably have to do on top of the main story.
    Good, dedicated, full-time science reporters are rare and consequently worth a lot to the science community. Because they are rare however, it is even more important that scientists understand how the rest of the media works and not simply try to shoe horn them into their own way of thinking about how it should work.

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    Zen Faulkes said:

    I understand that not everyone is going to have equal ability to understand the material in an original technical article. But are we agreed that there are some basic concepts that someone writing an article about scientific research should have a passing familiarity with? For instance, what a control group is? What “statistically significant” means? What a peer-reviewed journal is?

    Maybe the original question, “Should a science journalist be able to read a scientific paper?” needs clarification to, “Should a science journalist be able to read a scientific paper (though not necessarily the one they’re working on this instant)?”

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    Massimo Sandal said:

    Perhaps it’s me being naive, but I honestly thought that every professional science journalist (that is, someone who is full time or like devoted to write about science) had to have a science degree (and possibly some research experience). I couldn’t think someone could enter this job without being able to follow, at least generally, a scientific paper.

    It’s true that most scientists do not read beyond their own discipline, but that’s exactly what should separate a potential science journalist from a normal scientist. A science journalist should be someone who enjoys reading papers from a lot of other disciplines. At least, that’s one of the factors that led me to think I was suited to be no more a scientist but a science writer (in Italian, in case you wonder about my shoddy English): I was spending more time reading papers about entirely other stuff than work-related ones.

    Yes, jargon can be a barrier between different disciplines -and surely if you land with a particle physics paper, my molecular biologist self can be confused. Still, again, a science journalist should be someone who knows a bit of every field, and if they meet some concept they do not know, they should do their best to learn it, at least roughly, before going on writing. Science writers are there to let people understand science: how can they explain to others if they do not understand it themselves?

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    Ananyo Bhattacharya said:

    Hi – this came up right towards the end of the RI debate and I thought it might provoke some more comment. If the question is ‘must a good science journalist read the paper in order to be able to write a great article about the work’ then the answer is as I said on Tuesday ‘No’. There are too many good science journalists who started off in the humanities (Mark Henderson) – and some who don’t have any degrees at all (Tim Radford). So reading an academic research paper can not be a prerequisite to writing a good, accurate story.
    Secondly, of-course the people who insist that journalists should read papers are biologists or medics – by and large, much easier to understand than, say, particle physics papers (my undergrad degree was physics, PhD protein crystallography/molecular biology). I think it would be fair to say that, if to report on some areas of particle physics, you needed to read (and understand – or else there’s not much point is there?) the paper then there are huge tranches of science that would not be written about.
    The point is that a reporter’s job is to ask lots of questions to sources and ensure they do understand as much as required in order to be able to report accurately about research.
    And that’s just the starting point – after that, they have to make their prose sparkle, provide the context and background, give readers reason to read the story and, if it the science is controversial, ensure they’re representing the views on that science fairly.
    So I stick to the answer I gave to that question on the night – no, it’s not necessary to read the paper to write a great story on it (and I’ll also keep the caveat I added – it’s desirable to have read it if possible).

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    Matt Shipman said:

    If your question is: “Should a science reporter understand the basic underlying concepts of science. E.g., peer review, experimental and control groups, etc.” I think the answer is an obvious yes.

    This post is a simple statement of fact: many science reporters will not know the highly-specific and technical lexicons for every field of science that they cover. In my opinion, that doesn’t make them bad reporters — as long as they do the work necessary to understand the work itself. E.g., by talking to the authors of the paper.

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    Matt Shipman said:

    Yes, to everything you just wrote.

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    Peter Etchells said:

    This might be a stupid suggestion, but I know that in some journals (and in grant applications too), academic authors are required to produced a lay summary of their work. If that sort of practice was encouraged more, it might help authors to understand how to actually explain their work in terms that are easy to understand (which is a useful skill in and of itself), and it would make the journalist’s job easier, rather than having to trawl through an incomprehensible article on something they might not be expert in.

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