A tale from the trenches of science journalism

I get called fairly often for quick fact checks by science journalists, which is a good thing. I’ve also written a fair number of science pieces for publication, which get improved by good editors, which is also a good thing. But there are also ugly tales of bad editing and the difficult realities of getting science stories published, and I got one this morning that I post with the author’s permission.

I just read your post on journalist integrity, which reminded me to thank you again for your help with my article on zebrafish hair cells. I’m a recent graduate of an institutional science writing program and have been struggling to land freelance jobs as a science writer. My day job is in genetics research. One of my first real writing assignments was that article where I asked for your advice. Of course, I also interviewed the author of the study discussed in my piece. He corrected me when I asked if the inner ear in humans is similar to a fish’s lateral line. When I submitted the article, just shy of the 800 words I was asked to write, the editor said that the published piece had to be shortened a little. A few weeks later I checked the publication and found my article reduced to 360 words. I wasn’t happy, of course, but every journalist has dealt with this. However, when I began to read the piece I didn’t recognize it as anything I had written. I became worried so I did a sentence by sentence comparison. To my complete horror, out of 360 words there was only one sentence in the published piece and 3 or 4 fragments of sentences I had actually written; and the article was published with my name on it! I cannot in good faith use this article in my portfolio. Even more distressing, there in the published piece was the incorrect statement about likening the inner ear in humans to the lateral line in fish. The editor wrote it in without checking with me. Removed was any mention of neuromasts. The researcher I interviewed and I are colleagues, so what will he think when he reads this piece? I’m new at this, so whatever credibility I might have had is now lost. I don’t want to burn bridges with the editor since this is all I have going for me, but I need my name removed from that article. The entire thing should be withdrawn. It’s inaccurate and unethical.

I’ve heard a lot of stories like this. I’ve also talked to a fair number of science students who want to do science journalism, and they are typically idealistic and want to do right by the science…but what’s the point when media priorities are all focused on short-term profit, and when the management can willfully mangle your story?