Righting America

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Is Science News Trustworthy? | Righting America

by Sarah Olson

Photo of a chemistry teacher in a lab coat writing with a red pen and working in the lab with students at East Georgia State College.
“IMG_1086” by East Georgia State College is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Sarah Olson is an undergraduate student majoring in microbiology at Oregon State University, and a member of the National Association of Science Writers. She works at a bookstore curating their science and math sections and reviews popular science books on her blog readmorescience.com. In addition to pursuing a career in science writing, Sarah frequently writes about the intersection of religion, feminism, and science. She currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon with her fiance. You can connect with her at saraholson.net and on Twitter and Instagram at @ReadMoreScience.

In an age of fake news and online misinformation, can we trust trust science media? Writing for Answers in Genesis (AiG), Henry F. Sanders III attempts to establish why readers cannot trust science journalists. But Sanders’ misguided argument succeeds only in showing how necessary it is that well-trained journalists report science, and why readers should be wary of popular media’s reporting on scientific research. Citing a Pew Research poll from earlier this year that indicates the American public has stable confidence in scientists, Sanders spins this in a bad light by suggesting that “Americans are not actually trusting scientists: they are ultimately trusting what the media tells them scientists are saying— in spite of having a general distrust for the media.” 

It’s a science journalist’s job to make technical subjects into more digestible news articles for the general public. Proper science writing and reporting is a skill that takes years of training, which is obviously why untrained members of the media incorrectly report scientific findings – and why graduate degrees for science journalism and communication exist. Today, even some scientists are participating in science communication and writing news-style articles for the public. Graduate programs for science journalists often require an undergraduate degree in a science, and more prestigious programs such as the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Master’s program require research experience as well. Science journalists have an organization, the National Association of Science Writers, which strives to help its members attain journalistic excellence. The field itself is self-correcting, with journalists ready to call out each other’s mistakes at a moment’s notice.

But members of the popular media who sometimes write about science news are not specially trained. Those unfamiliar with scientific processes and concepts are more likely to make mistakes, exaggerate findings and conclusions, or simply misinterpret data. Worse, there are certainly fake news sites that set out to spread misinformation and rile up the general public, to rally them against scientists and experts or simply cause mass confusion or hysteria. 

Interestingly enough, the story Sanders uses for evidence is from The Daily Mail, a tabloid. If that’s where Sanders gets his science news, it’s no wonder he’s confused and alarmed. Perhaps he needs to play the Fake News Game and equip himself with the skills necessary to detect online fact from fiction. Jerry A. Coyne notes the difference between popular media and trained science journalists, as his blog post suggests: “New paper on flightless birds is grossly misreported and distorted by the popular media.”

Sanders also cites a clickbait article distributed by Fox News, and another article Fox News misreported about Ice Age insects. Instead of recognizing that Fox News and tabloids are not trustworthy news sources, Sanders instead blames science journalists and science media. He also mentions mistakes made by Science Daily, but neglects to mention Science Daily is a press release aggregator and only lightly edited. When I was an intern for a university newsroom, some of my own science press releases were picked up by the aggregator.

Despite that Sanders has written many articles for AiG on scientific topics, he seems to have very little understanding of what a science journalist actually does. He suggests misinformation happens because science journalists simply may not have access to original papers published in scientific journals (right, try pitching an article you haven’t read to a credible science news outlet) or they may not understand that press releases may be biased (press releases are put out by universities in order to get their research featured in the media, so yes, they’re obviously advocating for themselves). But science journalists are taught to have discerning eyes, to interview their sources, and to check the facts. Their writing must make it through the initial pitch, the editing process, and publication. Despite the best intentions of editors, mistakes still happen, and sometimes papers are retracted. It’s up to journalists to investigate the facts during their reporting.

Science journalists want their headlines to be catchy, but they aren’t “paid per click” as Sanders implies. In fact, I can’t think of an outlet which pays journalists that way. Some websites may rely on clicks to earn money through advertisements, which incentivizes them to write clickbait headlines. In my opinion, New Scientist can be guilty of writing clickbait headlines – but because they have a paywall, the more enticing their headlines sound, the more likely a reader is to buy a subscription. 

Still, Sanders’ points don’t hold up to scrutiny. For his bold claim that “much of what is published in the scientific media is just as skewed and misrepresented as what is presented in the rest of the media,” Sanders fails to provide adequate or convincing evidence to support this. Had he suggested the popular mass media frequently misrepresents science, and that journalists untrained in reporting science news are more prone to errors, he would have been correct.

Ironically, Sanders also notes that AiG’s own news outlet, Answers News, is guilty of covering misinformation and clickbait; that is, even as AiG criticizes and blames science journalists for fake news, the organization publishes and perpetuates it. Sanders tries to spin Answers News as blameless, suggesting that the popular science articles they covered were misrepresentations and AiG is the victim. Readers are left with the impression Answers News isn’t fact-checking or researching for themselves, and is instead relying on other outlets to do the work for them. 

But the most outrageous claim Sanders makes is that, since only 8% of journalists attend religious services, this corrupts their journalistic integrity. He writes, “because of this [nonreligious] worldview, many journalists are more than willing to manipulate the facts to fit with their bias.” Yes, Sanders is accusing non-religious journalists of manipulating the facts to fit their worldview. According to his logic, because Answers News makes their biases known, they are the more trustworthy journalists. 

If anything, Sanders’ piece ultimately casts great doubt on his own credibility as a writer of science articles. Then again, you need not read any further than this piece to know that Sanders isn’t writing anything that is scientifically sound. Despite my research, I’m unable to find information about Sanders or his credentials and experience. Perhaps he simply hasn’t any?

Let’s return to our original question: in an age of online misinformation, should we stop trusting science news? I think it would be a mistake to condemn science journalists. There are many straightforward strategies that exist to combat online misinformation and fake news. Even the most gullible reader can take a moment to research a source and verify whether the information is true or not. On Twitter, I encourage my followers to research an incredible news claim before resharing (#ResearchThenReshare). Combating misinformation involves recognizing tactics the fake news gurus employ to trick readers, such as playing to emotions and biases or pretending to be a legitimate news source. 

I’ve been a member of the National Association of Science Writers for several years now. Last year I was one of their undergraduate science journalism fellows, a program in which promising young science journalists get to try their hand at reporting with the guidance of an accomplished mentor. What I learned during that fellowship, and during my subsequent internship in a science newsroom, is that science communicators and journalists are working hard to gain the public’s trust. We are in the fight against fake news too. Sanders, however, doesn’t seem to know which side he’s on.