The Costs of Bad Science Communication

18 December 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

(Image courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski.)

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Emily Willingham, who writes The Science Consumer blog on Forbes.com, is managing editor of DoubleXScience, is co-author of the “Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism”, and has written for Slate, Grist and other outlets.]

Did you get into journalism to mislead or scare the hell out of people? No. That’s what advertising, political ads, and marketing are for, right? Based on a Twitter poll I conducted recently, the best science journalists got into the job because they learn something new and interesting just about every day and get to tell others about it, too. It’s cool, this science, and they want to share it.

Of course, those are the best folk out there. They got that way because they work hard at what they do and built a readership based on stories that are genuine and authentic. These writers have a relationship of trust with their audience.

But not all science journalism builds that trust. Indeed, thanks to headline writers, editors, the people in the business office, overwrought news releases, hyperspeculative researchers and the ever-impending death of the newspaper (but don’t write that obit yet), a lot of science-related journalism still reaches too far. But in grasping for readers, these stories might instead be pushing people away and losing their trust. Readers aren’t stupid – a lot of them can spot an article designed to push buttons – and like most people, they don’t like the feeling of emotional manipulation.

Speaking of emotional, I spend a lot of time writing about autism, and I’m part of a community of thousands of people with a similar interest. You’d think that stories about research related to autism might engage folk like us. But whenever I link in our community to a story of the “X factor linked to autism” persuasion, I can practically hear the eyeballs rolling. Why? The community is jaded. They’re tired of the daily headlines telling them that bad air, bad mothers, bad diets, bad chemicals, bad age, and bad times of year somehow have something to do with autism, often without equivocation.

Stories about cancer frequently fall into the same category. After the 20th cancer-related headline promising a “cure just around the corner,” readers just don’t believe the stories any more. For them, the words “breakthrough” and “cure” have lost meaning. And for good reason.

What’s the harm, you might ask, in a headline that perhaps overstates the case or a lede that does the same, with the balance debuting somewhere around the 10th paragraph? The harm can be a two-way street. Lose reader trust, and you will, I’m assuming, lose your readers. Today’s equivalent of “I’m cancelling my subscription” is simply a refusal to click on the salacious or manipulative headlines or fall into the trap of promised “cures.” You lose the thinking readers who want more than the online version of the National Enquirer. No clicks, no views; no views, no compelling reason for advertisers to spend their money.

That’s the harm to the journalist and the business. But what about harm to the readers? Sure, there’s the education angle. Readers who forgo the science- and health-related stories might miss, at the least, something really damned cool that just turned up on Mars and, at the most, something pertinent to their own lives.

Emily Willingham

A deeper harm, though, can be the kind of irresponsible science writing that leaves fearful or hopeful readers more scared, or hopeful, than they were in the first place, often for very personal reasons.

The recent introduction of Asperger’s into the national coverage of the Connecticut mass murder leaps to mind. In mere hours following the accurate identification of the shooter, “respected” news outlets were dragging in Asperger’s, often based on information derived from students, with one article citing a student’s “familiarity” with the signs of the disorder. The same day, talking heads took Asperger’s to television viewers, describing people with the condition as lacking empathy (which is not true), as missing some part of the brain, coupling the label “Asperger’s” with words like “defective” and “evil.”

What’s the harm in this kind of reckless characterization? First, it’s not accurate to draw a link between an autism spectrum disorder and planned criminal violence like mass murder. As autism expert Catherine Lord is quoted as saying in Amy Harmon’s New York Times post on the subject, the kind of aggression sometimes associated with autism is within-family and almost never involves weapons or planning. Lord also notes that each aspect of the Connecticut killings is “more common in other populations than autism.”

In addition to drawing a misleading link between a developmental disorder and mass murder, these stories also harm people with Asperger’s and their families. In the wake of these unqualified comments about the condition, worried parents have been contacting autism agencies, concerned that their autistic boys might someday become violent killers. Autistic people—particularly those with Asperger’s—are now at risk of being viewed by an uninformed public as potential mass murderers, undoing a great deal of progress toward understanding and awareness. Any of this damage could have been prevented had journalists followed some basic rules of confirmation and qualification when reporting the story. As it turns out, the shooter in this case, according to a divorce mediator who worked with the family, did have an Asperger’s diagnosis. What other issues he might have had, if any, remain unknown as of this writing. Regardless of any other facts that emerge, however, journalists need to be careful not to implicate the non-violent who share these characteristics in a tendency to violence or mass murder.

We must remember the people who will be affected by what we write. Some readers, weary of the hype, will roll their eyes. Some won’t even bother to read past the headline. But for every story we write, there are readers out there for whom the story is deeply personal, who will take in every single word through the prism of fear or anxiety or hope, whom those words will influence in outsized ways we might not bother to consider when working on deadline. Maybe sometimes the effect will be a mere blip. But other times, such as the media hype surrounding the Andrew Wakefield/MMR causes autism scare? Well, 14 years after that media circus, we’re still dealing with the very personal and general repercussions, including at the congressional level.

Assuming your goal is to inform and tell a story, not to kick off a public health crisis, how do you avoid such an unintended influence on the audience -- either chasing them away or skewing their perspective?

When you write from a viewpoint of skepticism and with modulation, that voice can get into the heads of your readers. With your skepticism, you take the overstatements from researchers or news releases and peel them away to find the honest story. You offer an authentic reflection of reality and avoid the overpromising, overhyping, and fear-mongering that either drives readers away or stirs them up.

Take the word “breakthrough,” a favorite of news release writers. What is a breakthrough, really? How often do any of us experience a real breakthrough in any facet of our lives – career, relationships, cooking dinner?  Almost never. They are remarkably rare events.

Science is no different. It rarely moves forward on big breakthroughs. They happen, but not every day – because science tends to advance on an accumulation of knowledge, not sudden leaps into the unseen with astonishing results. Yet, if you do a simple search on the word “breakthrough” in Google News, you’ll find that it is, well, a tad overused in science-related stories. We mislead about the science we love when we deliver it like this.

It’s hard to push back against an editor who wants you to write, again, about the “autism epidemic.” Or against a headline writer whose words just above your name make you flush with embarrassment. An essential question, though, for any of us – headline writers, too – is, What merit is there in frightening people or raising their hopes without a basis?

Ultimately, journalists want to tell true stories and to adhere to a code of ethics when doing it. When we consider that code, perhaps we tend to emphasize the ethics related to sources and plagiarism. But we also have an ethical responsibility to the reader, one that pays off for everyone. Think of the people you trust the most. Are they the ones who manipulate your emotions all the time, or the ones who talk straight, tell it like it is, and don’t dramatize? Which would you rather be as a science writer? There is only one ethical answer.


4 Responses to “The Costs of Bad Science Communication”

  1. Jitendra Mulay Reply | Permalink

    This is really great article I've ever read about science journalism. I think science writers must be very careful and have to keep aside the art of 'Extrapolation' while writing about science on which common readers will going to believe.
    Thanks once again!

  2. chemchad Reply | Permalink

    Great piece, Emily. Your passion for science communication is obvious in your writing, along with your feelings for the headline-grabbing that has resulted from the Newtown incident. And you still managed to compile everything into a logical story.

    As a scientist, it's reassuring that someone like you is part of the writing community, but more importantly as a citizen, I'm relieved to know that ethics and etiquette still exist.

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