Science in the News

Gwyneth Moreland

I’m always wary of science articles. Despite the fact that “yellow journalism” is frowned upon in the news, the standard suddenly changes for the science section. No matter where you look, the web is littered with a plethora of misreported, under-researched science articles.

Because, well, let’s be honest: science isn’t very interesting to the general public. Who wants to learn about physics when you could read about Turkey’s anti-rebel offensive? Not to mention that journalists may find themselves simply reiterating a scientific study, with their article annoyingly similar to everyone else’s. It’s hard to find a unique angle on a science paper, and the result is overdramatized articles.

But whether writing about politics or particles, a journalist’s job is the same. It’s still our job to provide clear, insightful and accurate information in an interesting way. Newspapers don’t realize the important position they hold as the link between the general public and rigorous scientific journals, which many do not know how to access. The best thing a journalist can do is make science understandable and accessible — but never a media stunt.

Take, for example, the recent event of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. First off, I have yet to see an article actually explain what a neutrino is, which the author could’ve easily found out from a quick search.

Secondly, an absurd number of these articles make false claims, such as Einstein being “overturned”. Journalists need to recognize what a study supports and what it doesn’t. Most suggest edits to our understanding of science, compared to the radical changes the media likes to imply. If anything, current reporting shows a lack of background research in the section that needs it most.

It seems that history likes to repeat itself. When Einstein first published his results in 1905 and more later in 1916, many newspapers claimed that Einstein had “disproved Newton,” even though Newton’s laws are correct in everyday situations¹. Now 100 years later, the media is still dramatizing science.

What’s even worse is when the news partakes in fear-mongering, all for the sake of a story. Consider the black hole fiasco with the large hadron collider (LHC) in 2008. While the public latched on to the doomsday story that the LHC could create Earth-swallowing black holes, backed science and data suggested otherwise. In fact, black holes are unlikely to form under those circumstances and any that could pose no threat². An article discussing that would’ve been interesting, but the doomsday story sold, and in the end that’s what gets covered.

Trying to keep up with the constantly changing world of science is hard, so I understand that writing a clear, poignant and accurate science article is a tall order. But it’s a job that needs to be done, and isn’t being done. Journalists need to take the time to research what they’re covering, otherwise, how can they hope to explain it to readers?
If journalists want to make science exciting, then instead of exaggerating data they could report on more unknown studies and observations. You might just be surprised at what’s out there: auroras in Arkansas, mollusk evolutionary trees, developments in electronic “smart” textiles and more.

Sensationalizing the scientific world gets us nowhere. What we need is journalists learning the special craft of reporting on science, and for readers themselves to expect more from them. We only stand to learn more from in depth science coverage. Let’s give it a try.