What to Ask When Reading the Latest Science News #7: Who Ran the Story?

As if they knew . . . 

As if they knew . . . 

All news is not created equal. This is why careful consumers of the science news take not of not just what the story is, but who wrote it and where it first ran.

There are so many places to get the news today that we talk not in terms of newspapers or TV, but about vehicles that carry the news to us. And there are a million of them, from Twitter and Facebook feeds to the Associated Press to your local barber or hairdresser. They vary in quality and reliability. 

The first thing to do when you hear something that interests you is to trace it back. It's kind of like being an archaeologist, digging down through the rubble to find the earliest traces, the place it all began. A tweet will go to a post which references a story, and so forth. Get back to where the news first showed up. Usually it will be either a news story or a blog post. If you can't find the source, forget the story -- you can't believe it until you can pin it down. 

Now you can start your real work. We've talked a lot about how you can judge the quality of the information in the story. Now consider the quality of the people who put it together. 

It starts with the writer. What qualifies them to write the story? Do they have any background in science or science journalism? Who do they work for? 

Now go to the organization that ran the story. Is it reliable? Keep in mind that media are driven by different motives than scientists. They tend to highlight stories that attract eyeballs, not the ones that are most important. So you get a lot of controversy stories, “everything you know is wrong” pieces, and often stories that are based on more sensational, less reliable subject matter. Better-quality outlets tone down the sensationalism in favor of substance. Lower-quality vehicles trumpet catchy headlines and graphics, followed by substance-free stories.

Take-home: The more sensational the headline, the less trustworthy the story.

Who do you trust? When it comes to science news, you're generally safer relying on organizations that have money and staff enough to do careful fact checking and editing. This isn't always true – some one-off science blogs can be very good – but it's true enough to serve as a rule of thumb. The job of science journalist isn't easy. Good ones have to know science, and they have to know how to write for the public. That's a pretty rare combination. And only a very few newspapers and other media can afford to pay skilled science writers, plus the editing staff to back them up. Those that do offer more reliable stories. Examples of top shops include the New York Times and The Guardian in the newspaper world; The Economist and The Atlantic among magazines; and the BBC when it comes to broadcasting.  

Bigger newspapers, magazines, and news organizations have the staff and structure to check and edit and recheck information before putting it out. Fred, the blogger working out of his basement, does not. In between are a huge number of websites and publications that vary widely in quality.

When it comes to science writing, the web offers risks along with riches. The move among many big mainstream media companies to cut back on science journalism has freed a lot of talent, much of which has been migrating online. Scientists themselves have added a lot of good blogs.The result is what some people see as a golden age of online science writing. 

But watch out: Research that is reported in advocacy publications (put out by groups trying to push a specific agenda, no matter what that agenda is) should always be viewed with skepticism. Ditto the increasing amount of “news” that is rewritten from corporate press releases. When in doubt, cross-check stories in more respected publications or websites.