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Why science coverage gets on some scientists’ nerves

by | Feb 24, 2015 | Uncategorized

Attention science journalists and editors: You’re being called out by your sources.

Nearly 80 per cent of American scientists say the superficial nature of media coverage on scientific studies is a major problem for the scientific community’s communications efforts, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest study.

The scientific community’s biggest beef with media coverage is that “news reports don’t distinguish between well-founded and not well-founded scientific findings.”

Kind of makes you wonder about a study released today on the Black Death, which suggests that the devastating plague that first appeared in Europe in the 14th century was caused by gerbils instead of rats.

Although this study’s conclusion is still very much in doubt, you would never know that from the news headlines of the day:

You dirty rat! Turns out gerbils were responsible for the Black Death (The Guardian)

After 8 centuries, rats exonerated in spread of Black Death (Washington Post)

‘Gerbils replace rats’ as main cause of Black Death (BBC)

The BBC article goes on to say that “If the genetic material shows a large amount of variation, it would suggest the team’s theory is correct.” Which is certainly not what the headline infers (of course, it’s not just about science journalists — editors and headline writers all have a part to play here, as well).

Indeed, it’s these kind of simplifications of complex studies requiring further testing that seems to really irk scientists dealing with the media: A further 52 per cent of the community said that the “simplification” of scientific findings is another major problem in terms of communicating those findings to the public.

The Pew report went on to say that while scientists do get annoyed with sometimes superficial coverage, they still value the media tremendously: 43 per cent said it’s important for scientists to get coverage in the news media.

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Jim Donnelly
Jim Donnelly graduated with a BA in History/English from Wilfrid Laurier University and a MJ from Carleton University. Jim heads Agility PR Solutions’ Media Insights Group which oversees the production of public and client media analysis reports and infographics. Jim was previously editor of the Ottawa Business Journal and related publications such as Ottawa Technology Magazine and Meeting in the Capital.

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