Science journalism plays an extremely important role in translating the almost impenetrable jargon and style of journal articles into languagethat can be digested by the general public. Hence it is important that they convey accurately and in a balanced way the main conclusions of the research. But in order to make their work appealing to the general public, scientists make often make passing claims in their papers that are not as well supported by their data but catch the eye of journalists who then give them undue weight. Seth Mnookin has pointed out recent examples where this practice has caused widespread public misunderstanding of the results of research.
Now Carl Zimmer highlights a disturbing trend that is guaranteed to make this problem even worse. When as article is submitted to a journal that the editors think will make a splash with the public, they will release it prior to publication to journalists, who can then research the article and prepare their stories for publication. The journalists are under an embargo to not publish their articles until a given date, usually the date on which the journal appears in print.
This is a well-established practice that serves everyone well. It enables good science journalists time to do a careful study and speak to authorities in the field to get feedback and alternative views, it gives the journals publicity, it gives scientists who do good work greater recognition, and it enables the public to get in lay language the results of important research that may be hard to understand from the original papers.
But it seems that some journals and scientists are trying to game the system. They, like politicians, have discovered the importance of first impressions in shaping a story and are adding to the embargo agreements a new clause that prohibits journalists from sharing the work with other scientists. The problem with that is, of course, that journalists are then dependent only on what is written in the paper and their own expertise, and thus the resulting articles will be heavily slanted in favor of the article’s authors, more like press releases than actual journalism.
Zimmer pointed out how recent one-sided reports on genetically modified foods causing massive levels of cancer in rats that caused considerable alarm was a product of this system and would have benefited from critiques of the research since the work seems to have serious flaws. He has denounced this system and called upon his colleagues to do the same.
This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. If someone dangles a press conference in your face but won’t let you do your job properly by talking to other scientists, WALK AWAY. If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY.
What is surprising is that the journals need the journalists more than the other way around. If the major media outlets refuse to go along, the journals will give in. And yet, it seems like even major news outlets like the BBC, AFP, and Reuters have gone along with them.
They should be ashamed of themselves.