Science – especially related to health, history, nature and technology – is a much-used source of information and a popular topic in news and journalism.
Science and journalism have much in common. Both strive to disseminate as truthful information as possible. Both seek to correct their mistakes, and neither is allowed to plagiarise or lie.
Despite similar principles, the characteristics of science and journalism differ. In journalism, the news criteria favour cases that are unprecedented, unexpected or even weird. On the contrary, science is slow and most of the research data confirms facts that are already known.
The poorer a research finding fits into science’s current understanding of the world, the more likely it is that the world of science will consider it unreliable – not a scoop. This is why, whenever news from a single study is reported, it is important to place the findings in context.
Whenever news from a single study is reported, it is important to place the findings in context.
In addition, the crisis of revenue logic in the media due to digitalisation has affected the journalist’s ability to tackle science topics responsibly. A journalist covering science must often handle topics in their field of work, which they are not familiar with beforehand. As the workload increases, there is less and less time to investigate the background or revisit the original research articles.
In situations like this, the reporter often has to trust experts in the field such as the scientific community or officials. This is why being able to identify the true experts is important for the reliability of news. Just being a scientist or having a Ph.D. does not qualify a person to comment on all research. Also, researchers have a variety of goals and motives. They make mistakes and sometimes they deliberately cheat.
Researchers have a variety of goals and motives. They make mistakes and sometimes they deliberately cheat.
In the media, the impartiality of articles is often striven for by bringing two people or groups that represent opposing views into a juxtaposition. This is justified, for example, when presenting the arguments in topical political debate.
However, when facts and scientific information are being handled, the form may mislead the reader. Not all sources are equal, and not all research is of the same high standard. Even though there might exist contrary research results on a certain statement, the scientific community may be unified in support of one of the positions.
Not all sources are equal, and not all research is of the same high standard.
It might be possible, for example, that, of 100 studies, 99 say that X is true and only one has produced the opposite result that X is false. The lone opposing result should belong in the error margin, not as the second party in an impartial debate. Impartiality that juxtaposes two opposing results in this example is structural but not truthful.
Misleading juxtapositions have been seen, for example, in the case of news reporting that handles climate change. The international scientific community has for decades been practically unanimous about the fact that climate change is real and is primarily caused by humans. Still, however, climate sceptics are heard and given their say in the name of impartiality.