Right now science journalism is facing many problems, mostly stemming from an industry being hit with a tough double whammy of approaching obsolescence and the acute market downturn. Across the country numerous science journalism staffs are being cut to save costs, leading to a decline in quality, leading to a decline in readership, leading to a decline in subscription and ad revenues, requiring more cost cutting…and so on. It’s a vicious cycle.
The sure sign of this decline in quality of the mainstream press are journalists taking press releases about a new discovery and rewriting it, hyping it out of proportion. A recent study was conducted by the Annals of Internal Medicine took a look at this phenomenon in the medical world and found this to be a huge problem. Press releases put out by a university will hype a discovery, which will in turn be taken by journalists unfamiliar with covering science, and be hyped further.
It’s not just in the medical sciences that are running these problems. Indeed, physics research is continually reported, hyped and distorted as well, especially in very popular and cutting edge fields. All the time, websites like EurekaAlert.org, PhysOrg.com or Science Daily will post press releases, hyping the latest graphene or quantum computing finding, and make it sound like Brookstone is about to carry a full line of graphene based quantum computers in every color. The releases, and articles based on them, usually couch their language saying things like “could lead to,” but either intentionally or intentionally, the impression given is that any small advancement represents a groundbreaking revolution in the field. Realistically though, any applications from these advances are years away.
At the Columbia Journalism Review blog, Earle Holland writes about how journalists have used the Annals of Internal Medicine study to sort of pass the buck. Bloggers on USA Today and the Wall Street Journal have implied that the fault of this shoddy coverage is from these over-hyped press releases. Earle is correct criticizing these bloggers and not letting lazy journalists off the hook. It’s as much their responsibility not to be taken in by these press releases.
This kind of weak journalism can get the world of science into trouble. This week, the British paper The Telegraph featured a fascinating piece about Jan Hendrik Schön, a scientist who falsified nearly all of his data, but was still widely published and featured before getting caught. He was able to exploit weaknesses in the system, both in the scientific community and the media for his own benefit.
What is needed is more scrutiny all around, both in the media and the scientific community. Mundane advances shouldn’t be hyped in press releases, and those that are should be seen as such by responsible science journalists. Otherwise we get the warped science journalism cycle we see today.