A science journalist remarks on reading scientific papers before writing the story. A key issue keeps popping up; press releases are often flawed and don’t tell the real story.
A survey of science, health and environment journalists reveals the importance they attach to reading research papers
…we are talking here about standard news stories based on a single journal paper – the science hack’s bread and butter. For me, the answer is straightforward. Of course a good science/health/environment journalist should read the paper if possible. It is the record of what the scientists actually did and what the peer reviewers have allowed them to claim (peer review is very far from perfect but it is at least some check on researchers boosting their conclusions).
Without seeing the paper you are at the mercy of press-release hype from overenthusiastic press officers or, worse, from the researchers themselves. Of course science journalists won’t have the expertise to spot some flaws, but they can get a sense of whether the methodology is robust – particularly for health-related papers.
In any case, very often the press release does not include all the information you will need for a story, and the paper can contain some hidden gems. Frequently the press release misses the real story.
Source: The Guardian (U.K)
I liked this quote from Tim Radford:
“Also I learned quickly enough that press releases related to original published papers sometimes didn’t seem to say quite what the paper seemed to say: and that press releases sometimes didn’t make it clear that the research into the astonishing efficacy of garlic pills in the control of migraine/epilepsy/irritable bowel syndrome had been funded by the garlic pill manufacturers’ association.”
I’ve seen enough press releases myself to know that they are specifically crafted and most often FAR removed from the truth of the matter or missing very important details.
So, when you see science stories reported in the popular press, look for ones where the writer has quoted the author (not just taken the quote from the press release). And, always realize, that the interpretation might not be safe to take on face value.