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The Methods of Science and Journalism Reporting

The differences between the fields of journalism and science can create significant barriers to effective communication, particularly due to differences in terminology, methodologies, and deadlines. Key terms like “force,” “theory,” and “error” have varying definitions in these domains. For example, the scientific term “force” refers to the magnitude of velocity, while the journalistic equivalent implies imposing one’s will. Similarly, the word “error” in science refers to deviations inherent to experimentation, while journalists view errors as professional mistakes.

The dichotomy also extends to the differing approaches between journalism and science. The rapidity of journalistic deadlines contrasts starkly with the longer time frames typical of scientific research. Despite these disparities, both fields share fundamental tasks such as conducting investigations, gathering information, and reporting findings. Nevertheless, the interpretation and presentation of these findings vary; scientists typically write for their peers, while journalists translate complex findings for the general public.

Despite the lack of an absolute scientific method, rules of evidence, tolerance for uncertainty, and handling of variables markedly differentiate science from journalism. For instance, while journalism prefers a dual-source model for news stories, science requires rigorous testing of theories for validation. In dealing with uncertainty, journalists typically desire clear-cut answers, while scientists aim to measure the uncertainty. When dealing with variables, journalists should always consider other possible factors that could affect the results of a study.

Issues of funding and career advancement also impact both fields, leading to potential conflicts of interest. Pressures for recognition and progress, coupled with limited research funds, can cause conflicts, especially as peers often sit on review or funding boards. This pressure has led to increasing lobbying of politicians by scientists, altering the traditional scientist-reviewing-scientist paradigm.

Communication between scientists and journalists is often complicated by disparities in expectations and concerns about reputation, depth of coverage, speed, and uncertainty. However, despite these challenges, communication can be improved with appropriate skepticism, peer review scrutiny, use of multiple explanations, comfort with numbers, and a network of experts for consultation.

The difference in perceptions can also lead to a misunderstanding of conflicts of interest and the scientific method. For instance, while journalists may see funding sources as potential conflicts of interest, scientists view them as separate from their research integrity. Similarly, disputes between scientists may be seen by journalists as conflict, whereas it might actually represent the scientific method’s iterative nature.

In summary, while journalism and science are two distinct disciplines with unique terminologies, methods, and deadlines, an understanding and respect of their differences can lead to effective communication and better dissemination of scientific knowledge to the public. Despite challenges, diligent collaboration can bridge the communication gap, leading to enhanced understanding.


Science reporting checklist

Expanded Science Reporting Checklist

  1. Preparation is key, but it’s also important to ask all questions, even those that may seem basic or ‘dumb.’ Avoiding a question for fear of sounding naive might lead to missing important information.
  2. Treat every extraordinary claim from any scientist with polite skepticism. Ask for proof, data, and details about their study or experiment. Discuss the origin of their data, its reliability, and how reproducible their results are. Explore the degree of consensus within their scientific community.
  3. Understand the affiliation of the scientist. Are they linked to a university, in private practice, or working for a commercial firm? Do they have any financial interest in the work being reported? This information can provide context to their research and potential biases.
  4. Take note of studies that have not been reviewed in a scientific journal. While they should be approached with caution, they should not be immediately dismissed.
  5. Determine the scientist’s background and credibility in their field. Understand that when scientists step outside of their specialty, their opinions might not carry more weight than anyone else’s.
  6. Identify where the research was conducted and whether it was peer-reviewed. Does it matter if the work was done at a renowned institution or local hospital? Also, evaluate if there were sufficient subjects for the study.
  7. Confirm that the experiment included proper controls. Controls are necessary to ensure the reliability of the results.
  8. Assess the possibility of a placebo effect. The power of suggestion or wishful thinking can significantly influence outcomes, especially in medicine.
  9. Evaluate whether the results justify the claims being made. Is there a strong correlation between the data collected and the conclusions drawn?
  10. Obtain other experts’ opinions on the research. How does the scientific community view the work? Peer review and acceptance are crucial in science.

Additional Considerations:

  1. Consider the societal implications of the research. How might the results affect the public, policy-making, or future research?
  2. Seek clarity on the methodology used in the research. A well-executed study should have a transparent and reproducible methodology.
  3. Ask about the limitations of the study. Every study has its constraints, and it is important to present these alongside the findings.
  4. Verify whether ethical guidelines and regulations were followed during the research, especially in studies involving human or animal subjects.
  5. Check if the statistics used in the study are sound. Misuse or misunderstanding of statistics can lead to incorrect interpretations.
  6. Remember to report the science accurately and responsibly. Avoid sensationalism and overhyping of results, as this can lead to public misunderstanding or panic.
  7. Stay updated with recent developments in the field. Science is constantly evolving, and understanding the latest trends and discoveries can help put the research in context.
  8. Promote scientific literacy among your audience. Explain scientific terms, processes, and implications in an accessible way.
  9. Follow up on the story. Scientific research often leads to more questions and further studies. Checking back on the initial findings or claims after some time can provide a more complete story.
  10. Remember your role as a science journalist is to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public. You are a critical link in translating complex scientific information into digestible, relevant, and accurate news.
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