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Chris Chambers @chrisdc77
, 23 tweets, 7 min read Read on Twitter
Thread alert: Lots of heated discussion going on about this. It’s not the 1st time – this issue comes up repeatedly. I used to be firmly of the “I’m a scientist. Yes” camp, but I changed my views quite profoundly & here’s why. Gather round fellow scientists. 1/x
Back in 2011 some colleagues of mine had their research completely misrepresented by the Sun, the PA & the Daily Mail. They were appalled & wanted to do something. I had a (tiny) bit of media experience & I was co-opted into helping write a response:… 2/x
This was circa Leveson & this issue was HOT. After reading a piece that annoyed us which pitched *against* the kind of checking that could have prevented our shitstorm, we decided to go further. We argued for the first option of @kylejasmin’s survey… 3/x
Things EXPLODED. We hit a nerve. A big one. Our piece (the headline of which we did not write) was interpreted as a direct challenge to the freedom of the press and an argument for a kind of authoritarian academic exceptionalism. 4/x
Journalists, understandably I realise now, did not take our suggestion well. Boy were my ears ringing. But by this time the debate had a momentum of its own & we ended up in the Royal Institution trying to hammer out possible solutions to misreporting:… 5/x
It quickly became obvious that copy checking by scientists was not the answer. As a standard practice in journalism, it is professionally & ethically unacceptable. It erodes the independence of the reporter & risks them becoming a mouthpiece for the scientist. 6/x
So we proposed other ideas, such as a kitemark-based system for accreditation of science new stories that meet certain basic criteria, e.g. as outlined in this piece:… 7/x
We sent our proposal to the then Science Minister David Willetts and even submitted it to Leveson. You can read it here:… 8/x
But as we dug deeper, we saw a much bigger problem begin to take shape, and a more effective way to focus our efforts. 9/x
Many news outlets, we suspected, basically were *already* mouthpieces for scientists, not by checking copy but by simply regurgitating the press releases associated with the work, that is, the PR material issued by universities or journals. 10/x
And from talking with reporters, we suspected that many of them, facing intense newsrooms pressures (e.g. writing 5-6 stories/day), relied on press releases to quickly churn out copy, often with minimal (or no) communication with the scientists or any independent experts. 11/x
And this raised a disturbing possibility: what if most hype in science news isn’t created by the journalist, but is already *in* the press release? If true, this would be a real threat to press independence & frankly would make grumbling scientists look like hypocrites. 12/x
So we launched a research project – called Insciout – to find out the truth. We got many journalists on board as advisors, including the one who had written the awful Sun piece from years ago that got the ball rolling. I thought that was awesome. 13/x
Two years later the 1st results were in & they were striking: most exaggeration in science/health news was already in the press releases issued by universities.… Just process that fact for a moment. Lay write up of the study:… 14/x
Then we found the same pattern for press releases issued by major journals… and our results were also replicated by a study in the Netherlands. 15/x
Here was (and is) a major potential cause of misreporting and it's under our very noses as scientists. We should be appalled, no? How dare we complain about reporters when it is we who start the problem in the first place? 16/x
So what did I learn from all this? I'm still learning but here are a few home truths for fellow scientists - things I've picked up not only from this ongoing journey but during my time since 2013 as a Guardian Sci blogger +3 years on the @SMC_London Advisory Committee. 17/x
First – if you insist on checking a journalist’s copy before they publish, get used to never talking with the good ones. It makes you sound pedantic & untrusting, & you are only ensuring that your work is either never covered or is only covered by journos who lack confidence 18/x
Second – sometimes journalists check their copy (or sections of it) anyway to be sure they have got a particular fact correct. It happens to me maybe 5% of time. That’s fine if it’s their choice but never impose that as a condition of engagement. 19/x
Third – don’t ask to check quotes. Instead, if you have prior concerns, tell them you are recording the interview at your end for your records. If they misquote you, tell them to correct it. If they won’t, publish the transcript, tell their editor & never talk to them again. 20/x
Fourth – if you really want accurate science news, avoid exaggeration in your own press releases and anticipate likely misunderstandings by including a section “What this study does NOT show”. If you allow hype in your PR then YOU share culpability for misreporting. 21/x
Finally, accept that you're not special to journalism & neither is science. Independence is key to journalism. Sometimes journalists will screw up & sometimes you will do it all by yourself. Get media trained, find the good journos & trust them. Basically, get over yourself. /fin
Postscript: for those asking about the next step in our's not over yet!
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