Sloppy science journalism - the rest of the web is laughing at us

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 12 April 2011

For a while on this blog I had a Venn diagram in the top right-hand corner of the banner area, which was there to remind me that I was supposed to be writing about stuff in the intersection between IA, digital media and journalism. That is where the professional communities that I belong to collide. So it was uncomfortable to be sitting in Denver at the IA Summit last week, listening to one of my group of peers laughing loudly at the output of the other.

But that was exactly what happened when Leanna Gingras was presenting “Upping your game: Five things IAs need to talk about more”. Her talk was about how IAs and UX people should read more widely in related fields to get greater insight into their work - something I’ve argued for myself. However, one of the examples she used pointed out all that was wrong with science journalism.

She’d seen an article on Cnet News which suggested that using Facebook was making people more depressed than it was making them happy - and that this was called “Facebook envy”. This piqued her interest, and so she wanted to read more about the study. In fairness to them, they had linked to the original study, but on clicking through, Leanna was struck by the fact that the abstract of the paper didn’t mention Facebook at all. In fact, once she went to all of the trouble of pressing CTRL+F, she found that Facebook was only mentioned once in the entire report, and that this was in parentheses.

As she was telling this story, an audience of people who are involved in the day-to-day business of web publishing and getting information to users were rolling in the aisles at the fact that, as Leanna put it, this news report was “full of shit”

It isn’t just full of shit. It damages and undermines journalism as a profession.

How long is it going to take our industry to wake up to the fact that in the digital networked age, when we make spurious claims about academic research for the sake of a catchy headline, it takes our audience seconds to join the dots themselves?

And they are laughing at us.


Indeed! Until that wake up is affected though, thankfully we have Ben Goldacre! ;-)

Knight Science Journalism Tracker is a good source for examining science journalism. Ben Goldacre is good too (mentioned by Mark)

Nice to see a non-science journalist writing about this topic! It is incredibly frustrating, especially when the mass media presents spurious research as something bordering on public health advice.

Having said that, I have heard science journalists claiming they simply don't have time to check papers properly before writing a story. This isn't an excuse, but I think it can be all too easy to blame 'lazy journalists' when perhaps the whole process needs to change altogether and allow journalists the time to conduct proper research...

In my experience the general populous are not that interested in true science anyway. Sound bytes and catchy headlines are all the majority of people want. The people who join the dots become enlightened and the rest just remain oblivious. No harm done !!

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