Reader Ryan Brase, a senior in computer science and electrical engineering, wrote to me recently in response to an article about University e-mail accounts.
The article contained computer terminology which was, according to Brase, misleading or inaccurate. Brase referred to instances of inaccurate science and technology in news stories as the “cringe factor.”
I appreciate the time this reader took to explain his point to me, and his understanding of the difficulty journalists have in covering complex technical subjects.
“I do understand that reporters and editors cannot be experts in everything and that philosophy majors probably cringe every time specifics relating to their field are mentioned,” Brase wrote, “It is appreciated that the Daily makes the effort it does to report technical stories.”
These comments made me curious about how much effort Daily reporters put into ensuring their technical stories are accurate. I talked to a number of University researchers whose work has been covered by the Daily, and the reviews were mixed. One scientist had a very good experience with a Daily reporter and thinks the paper does a good job in general when it comes to covering research. Others told of Daily reporters who seemed to have little knowledge of basic science and reading Daily stories which significantly mis-characterized aspects of their research.
Reporter David Hyland, who covers the science and technology beat for the Daily, cited a number of problems that can result in the “cringe factor” in technical stories, such as trying to find a balance between making a technical story understandable to a lay audience and making sure it’s accurate. He also cited the need to condense a two-hour interview into one short paragraph for a story as a potential problem.
“It ends up being my interpretation of their work,” Hyland said.
Professor William Babcock, who teaches reporting at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications and is the Director of the Silha Center for Media Ethics and Law, said ideally a reporter will have enough technical competency to be knowledgeable in every area. But that ideal is seldom realized.
Reporters can come closer to the ideal by getting good journalism training, Babcock said. And that training goes beyond how to gather news, and includes training in the sciences, art and humanities.
“Just as in real estate the three keys are location, location, location, in journalism the three keys are education, education, education,” Babcock said.
He also stressed the need for reporters to give themselves extra time on complicated stories. This advice was echoed by Jim Dawson, science writer for The Star Tribune.
Dawson said good science writers have years of experience and specific scientific training. For student journalists who write about scientific subjects, Dawson stressed the need to take the time to get the stories right. Science reporters should read as much as they can about the areas they cover, including scientific journals. Reporters should also interview sources and then go back and re-interview them until they understand the story.
“If you don’t know what you’re saying, don’t say it,” Dawson said.
Although neither the Daily nor the Star Tribune policies allow reporters to show stories to sources prior to publication, Dawson said calling a source and reading back a quote or characterization of the research is a good way to ensure accuracy.
Reporter Hyland said he usually reads his explanations and quotes back to his sources to make sure they are accurate.
I would be more satisfied if Hyland could say he always calls his sources back to check quotes and descriptions of research. And since Hyland isn’t the only reporter who covers research at this University, I would like to see this practice become standard procedure among Daily reporters.
But the responsibility for ensuring accuracy doesn’t just fall on reporters. Babcock said there is a shared responsibility between the reporter, the editor and the source. While reporters and editors must be knowledgeable about the topic, scientists and researchers at the University have to understand that it’s not the job of a journalist to present 20 years of research in a 10-inch story. They must also understand that they’ll have to do some teaching in the course of an interview.
“Do it for education or do it for self-preservation,” Babcock said.
He advised researchers to come to an interview organized and prepared. He said researchers should have hand-outs for the reporter and shouldn’t give an interview unless prepared to educate the reporter.
Although scientific writing presents special obstacles for student journalists, reporting on research in general demands special attention to detail. And since the University is a research institution, Daily reporters have to cover a myriad of research topics. The problems that plague science writers can also cause problems for reporters writing on social science research.
Writing accurately about research includes putting quotes in context. Earlier this quarter, the Daily reported on a panel discussion hosted by the Minnesota Journalism Center on the social impact of the Super Bowl. Panelist Mary Jo Kane, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies, was quoted in the story on the subjects of football, male bonding rituals and dominance over women. Her quote, which was a small portion of a larger point Kane was making about scholarly research on this subject, prompted a reader to write to me objecting to the statement.
Kane said she didn’t blame the reader, given the way her out-of-context quote was presented.
All Daily stories go through an editor, and these editors need to call their reporters on quotes that don’t make sense or seem vague. Editors need to send their reporters back to their notes or back to the source to get context or confirmation of an ambiguous. This brings me to editorial responsibility. Editors can be confident that if a quote or description of a research topic doesn’t make sense to them, it’s not going to make sense to the reader. And if a reporter hasn’t confirmed a quote or a description of research with a source, the Daily could lose the possibility of returning to that researcher for future stories.
Research is essential to the University — it brings grant money and notoriety to this institution. It’s also vital to the Daily, since the paper must cover research in order to cover the University. The Daily must make a commitment to covering research, and that commitment must include giving reporters and editors the training and the time needed to report on research in a responsible manner.
Melodie Bahan’s column appears on alternate Mondays. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.