Four pitfalls to avoid when reporting on science

byLindsay Kalter
Apr 15, 2013 in Specialized Topics

Although reporting on topics like physics and chemistry may make many journalists queasy, their importance to the coverage of medicine, the environment and other areas can't be denied.

Too many journalists just scratch the surface or shy away from science-based subjects entirely, writes Peter Iglinski, senior press officer for science at the University of Rochester in a recent Poynter Online post. Here are some common mistakes he identifies:

Sacrificing accuracy for simplicity

One of the most common offenses in science reporting is the tendency for reporters to oversimplify inherently complex material. But it's important to go beyond the surface concepts, Iglinski says. Don't just report the results--take time to explain the methodology and the specifics of the findings.

If your editor is applying deadline pressure and the story isn't ready, it's better to ask for an extension than hand in a half-baked piece, he believes. "Science is pretty complicated, whether it involves subatomic particles, chemical bonds, or DNA repair," Iglinski writes. "It’s always better to take the time to write the story well, than to rush it for that day’s deadline."

Claiming ignorance

It's perfectly acceptable to ask sources for more detailed explanations, but don't start to interview an expert without doing a little homework. "Acting dumb does nothing to instill [audience] confidence in a science reporter," Iglinski writes. "Journalists don’t take that approach in their political and economic reporting, so why do it with science?" In the same vein, don't report every story on scientific progress as though it were a breakthrough. Do your research and know the gravity of each finding.

Letting writing standards slide

Science stories can be technical and dense, but journalists should strive to maintain a compelling writing style. Writing accurately does not necessarily mean writing dryly, according to Iglinski. "The world of science is filled with researchers working on particles a fraction the size of an atom and studying cosmic distances that are incomprehensible to the average person," he writes. "Find the passion and excitement of the story — then share them."

And while reporters should make sure to include background information, it's important to know just how far to go. If you get too technical, you could lose your audience entirely.

Including bogus viewpoints

As reporters, we're taught to include all sides of the story. But sometimes, there just isn't an "other side." "There are people who believe the world is flat, that astronauts never landed on the moon, and that Elvis is still alive — but few journalists would consider including those angles in their stories," Iglinski writes. Learn what facts are considered legitimate in the scientific community, and be a proponent of sound science.

In addition, journalists should do their homework on sources. Make sure your interview subjects are credible, and that their expertise matches the subject. "A meteorologist is not the same as a climate scientist, and even a distinguished particle physicist is not necessarily an expert in quantum optics," Iglinksi notes.

To read the original Poynter post, click here.

Photo CC-licensed, courtesy of snre on Flickr.

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