I recently argued that to scientists, accuracy is the most important element of a story (surprising, no?) in response to a journalist trying to claim that character and plot were more important. I also tried to make the case that accuracy and an interesting narrative aren’t mutually incompatible — and I should have added that accuracy ought to be the number one priority for science journalists, too.
In case you’re wondering why so many scientists are distrustful of science journalists, you should take a look at this account from Ben Goldacre. A masters student in psychology gave a talk at a science conference to present her preliminary findings, which, sad to say, were picked up by the Telegraph.
Here’s the title of the Telegraph story.
Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists
Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester
Here’s the actual title of the press release from the University of Leicester describing the work.
Promiscuous men more likely to rape
There seems to be a significant discrepancy in emphasis, yes?
Goldacre called up the student researcher, and got the straight story: the Telegraph title is factually wrong, they found no statistically significant result corresponding to that claim. And here’s the reaction of the investigator:
When I saw the article my heart completely sank, and it made me really angry, given how sensitive this subject is. To be making claims like the Telegraph did, in my name, places all the blame on women, which is not what we were doing at all. I just felt really angry about how wrong they’d got this study.
I think science journalism is valuable and important, and in order to earn the trust of both scientists and the public, it needs to make honest, accurate reporting its chief value. Lately, there have been too many instances of a violation of that trust — and bending a story to more comfortably fit a common and erroneous stereotype is a perfect example of bad reporting.
It probably does produce more contented readers, though. Or at least, in this case, contented male readers.