Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Science reporting: Get. It. Right.

Written by

Reporting on science is too often overtly anti-scientific. Instead of “here is some data, what does it tell us?”, lazy journalists and bloggers take the opposite route: “I have an agenda, now what data can I cherry-pick to support it?”

I recently came across this DrugMonkey post about the misreporting, by USA Today, of a new eye-tracking study, as well as the knock-on misreporting by feminist pop culture mega-blog Jezebel.

Published in the academic journal Sex Roles, the original study had investigated “the objectifying gaze towards women” by measuring how long people spent looking at women’s faces versus their bodies in prepared images. While the actual research found that both male and female participants spent substantially more time looking at the women’s faces than at their chests or waists, USA Today and Jezebel reported exactly the opposite, throwing in some sarcastic commentary and stereotype reinforcement for good measure.

Poor media reporting of research findings is a common complaint of scientists, and it persists despite the availability of straightforward guidelines on science journalism. Where sex and gender are concerned, it seems the urge to misinterpret research to fit a pre-existing narrative is overwhelming. I’ve written before, for example, about how shoddy reporting of teen sexting research perpetuates an almost-hysterical concern about female sexuality by presenting teen sexting as something done almost exclusively by girls – even when the research itself shows teen boys and girls (as well as gay teens) sexting each other at approximately equal rates. Less titillating subject matter, too, falls victim to distortion. As a policy professional, I've seen the way public policy processes, reports and decisions are the subjects of low-level but almost routine errors in the traditional press.

With digital media ever more click-driven and content-hungry, it's hard to imagine that this kind of careless, hasty authoring of misinformation will go away any time soon. Worse yet, information that’s false but fascinating can now be spread and reproduced with ridiculous speed. Last I looked, USA Today’s as-yet-uncorrected story had garnered 6,388 Facebook shares, 476 tweets and an unknown number of e-mail shares. It had also spawned the Jezebel article, which cited USA Today as its source, and which had itself attracted another 51,180 page views and 745 Facebook shares.

Other news, commentary and – most concerningly – scientific publications have also picked up the story, almost all of them repeating USA Today's mistake. In a later update to the original post, DrugMonkey lists three further mis-reports of the same study. Even as I type, the error ricochets across the web-tubes. An article in the sciency-sounding Science Daily (“your source for the latest research news”) gets it wrong in the opening sentence. USA Today's piece is re-published, unchanged, in far-off Nairobi. Right-wing news site quotes USA Today, appending to it an enormous picture of Miranda Kerr in her daks and some prescient “Ya don't say?” analysis. “Yeah, fuck, men are pigs,” laments Jezebel. “Men are pigs. (Fuck yeah!)” respond the dudebros. It's almost touching the way these ideological opponents are willing to come together to prop up the same false and damaging stereotypes.

Quite obviously, the digital media environment powerfully incentivises the kind of flippant attitude to publishing that sees one small, unreplicated study grossly misinterpreted, reproduced, and presented to millions of readers around the world. A Jezebel writer who actually tracks down and reads a study before reporting on it will have less time to churn out her next 17 bits of clickbait. Once she's got the facts straight, she'll have to accurately describe a complex reality using a form that demands concision, impact and humour. So I’m not saying it’s easy to do it right.

But even if it’s hard, even if it’s unrewarding, I think that journalists, opinion writers and even two-bit bloggers have a serious obligation to do their fucking research. Particularly in an era as complex and information-saturated as our own, lazily inventing and reproducing misinformation is a real ethical failure. The wider the readership, and the more likely the words are to trigger a cascade of micro-variations, the greater the obligation to get it right.

Twenty-first century human society is insanely complex. Each of us is flailing about in a vast ocean of information, the sea level rising with every paper, every article, every tweet. In the not-so-distant past, human beings had few real choices to make and little information to bring to bear on those decisions. But today, here, to be serious about working anything out – from which electricity tariff to choose right through to how to be happy – means finding, sorting through, filtering and synthesizing huge amounts of data. It’s an overwhelming task, and one that non-fiction writers and publishers (digital or otherwise) make harder every time they sloppily disgorge another untruth.

In an era characterised by such a paralysing over-abundance of information, the goal should be exactly the opposite: helping readers to navigate and make sense out of complexity by doing the hard work of research and analysis on their behalf.

Ultra Hedonist

Ultrahedonist is an everyday office worker. She loves pleasure and even-handedness and wishes we could all just get along.

Follow her on twitter @Ultrahedonist