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(Don’t) Keep it Simple

Why a Culture of Journalism Isn’t Working for Science

NYT Newsroom SOURCE: AP Photo/Ron Frehm, File The newsroom at the New York Times is seen as editorial staffers work feverishly to prepare a Monday edition, in this Nov. 5, 1978 file photo. The chaotic newsroom culture of the mainstream media has not been a good platform for informed science journalism.

“This is a news website article about a scientific paper.”

That was the headline by science writer Martin Robbins in his parody of the dull, noncommittal journalism template to which a good number of science news stories seem to follow. The article, published in September on The Lay Scientist blog, went viral nearly immediately. From Facebook to Twitter to blogs, no social medium seemed immune from the chain reaction of overwhelming virtual approval.

The charge that science news coverage is in many ways inadequate—as overly simplistic, sensationalist, ambiguous at best, and inaccurate at worst—is hardly new. But the sheer popularity of Robbins’s piece suggests it tapped into something prevalent in our collective consciousness today. In his follow-up blog entry, Robbins attributes the article’s speedy rise to fame to its picking up on rooted habits and rules of the newsroom. One, which he discusses briefly, is “arbitrary word limits.”

Robbins gets it. Yes, there is a newsroom culture that lies at the heart of the crisis in modern science journalism. But it runs deeper than column counts.

This past summer, I reported on science and health for The News & Observer, the leading newspaper of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Straight out of college and holding a bachelor’s degree in biology, I was in a real newsroom for the first time. As such, I was probably more sensitive to newsroom “groupthink” that was unfamiliar to me. My assignments indeed came with word limits but they were somewhat fluid.

Rather, what stood out to me was a continual pressure to condense—regardless of the limits. Trim the verbiage; get to the point, I was instructed. Writing about science, in particular, the message was clear: Do not inundate your readers. Do not confuse. Give them what they need, and nothing more.

I had one editor who required that I give him my story pitches using six words or fewer. But the message wasn’t even simply to shorten; it was to make it punchy. Cutesy. Puns and clever twists of phrases signaled good writing. “Hooking the reader” meant playing with language to get your punch line across as glibly as possibly. A short article was a point of pride.

Cleverly packaged writing is not inherently bad writing, of course. The ability to explain something in a succinct way suggests an impressive grasp over language. It reflects a clear line of thinking. Extra words can take readers on tangents, overcomplicate an idea, and dilute a focus. Writing concisely is a tremendous skill, requiring years of practice.

Yet something strange happens when you take a deep-seated journalistic template and apply it to all subject matter unconditionally. A subject burdened with as much uncertainty and complexity as science requires a bit more nuance in depicting it. Trimming even a few words or phrases may mean the difference between an accurate depiction and the clichéd misinformation Robbins and others remonstrate against.

One branch of science that illustrates this point quite plainly is modern genetics. We know that our physical characteristics are the result of an intricate mix of genetic and environmental influences—that genes do not pull the puppet strings on traits and behaviors. When talking about genetic variants underlying complex diseases, claims of causation become even hazier. For instance, it is estimated that over 100 genetic variants contribute to autism. Of these, only maybe 10 to 20 are believed to be involved in any given individual. How much does each variant contribute in each person? How much does the environment add? No one is even close to knowing.

Even so, the media has a habit of dubbing a genetic variation that contributes to a trait as the “trait gene.” In 2009, headlines broadcasted the “autism gene.” Meanwhile, there were reports on the “male infertility gene,” the “obesity gene,” and even the “liberal gene.” It’s not difficult to understand how the trend emerged. It is much snappier, much cleaner, to say obesity gene than “genetic variation that may increase risk for obesity.” I can envision my editors relentlessly stabbing that phrase with their red pens. But by leaving out those kinds of extra key words, this kind of coverage effectually overstates the role of genetics.

What you also might not get from this coverage is the fact that genome-wide association studies indicate just what they say—association, or correlation, but not causation. Only additional experimentation using things like mouse knockouts of those genetic regions can confirm causation.

Another common “sin of omission” involves mentioning the extensive lag time between gene discovery and development of therapies that can actually be used in a clinical setting. For instance, last month the news sites were buzzing with the story of researchers finding a gene linked with depression. Science Daily was not alone in boasting that the region is “a potential target for a novel class of therapeutic agents,” without giving any indication of how far into the future this might happen.

In fact, 10 years ago, when genetics was first coming into the media spotlight, the Genetics and Public Policy Center conducted a study that examined the accuracy of 50 news stories about breast and prostate cancer risk genes. Especially telling was this finding: “Although there are some false statements, most errors are ones of omission rather than commission. Although most stories correctly reported the broad implications of the genetic discovery, fewer than 50 percent made clear that the discoveries pertain to a specific subgroup of high-risk families. Because of such omission, people may believe that discovery of new genes will have immediate implications for broad segments of population.”

The bottom line is this: Scientific accuracy can be wordy. And journalism, by definition, doesn’t do well with wordy.

The consequences of this clash are not trivial. Molecular genetics is still a new enough field that public understanding of it is exceptionally impressionable. As a 1989 baby, I can attest that my high school and college biology courses covered modern genetics, with DNA microarrays and disease markers in the curricula right alongside the classic lessons in Mendel’s pea plants. My parents, in contrast, cannot say the same. Like many, they glean their science news from the media as the primary, if not only, well of information. As a result, it is the reporter’s rendition rather than the original journal article that is quoted, emailed, and used to shape popular discourse and policy debate.

Even small reporting choices like those mentioned above can lead people to overestimate the role of genes in our identities. Moreover, how people think about genetics can have a powerful influence in how they make choices that affect their lives. Should you get tested after a parent passes away from cancer? What about Alzheimer’s disease? And if a test comes back with a positive result, what exactly does that mean, anyway? The answers for many are framed by what they read over the breakfast table.

It’s easy to look at a botched science story and shake your finger in a lot of directions: at the quoted scientists; at the writers of the press release; at the reporter (this seems to be most common); at the editor; at the copy desk that slaps on yet another misleading headline. Sure, there are mediocre writers. And sure, there are some scientists who can convey ideas more clearly than others. But the real culprit is not any individual, but a larger culture of journalism that says—consistently, unremittingly—make it punchy. Qualifiers are empty words. Long phrases are not easy on the eye. Extra explanations muddle.

I in no way blame my newsroom culture in North Carolina any more than newsrooms elsewhere. It’s a culture with a history and momentum and it’s extremely challenging for any one newspaper, or any one individual, to oppose it.

So, to Mr. Robbins and all others who bemoan the science news article, I hope it’s clear that the problem does not rest solely with the name you see on the byline. And I hope it’s realized that the solution does not involve shipping a reporter off to extra years of schooling. Science and journalism have a new alliance to form. Adjusting a monolithic culture to which writers, editors, copy desks, and yes, even readers all subscribe is not easy. However, increased awareness that journalism templates do not—rather, cannot—apply to all subject material is a good starting point. To the copy desk, I offer this: Be careful with what you snip. That science article may take a few extra seconds to read, but we may be miles ahead in what we learn in the long run.

Ilana Yurkiewicz holds a B.S. from Yale University and was a staff writer at The News & Observer. She currently works as a Clinical Research Assistant at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

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