Imagine if a journalist sent their story to former Republican Vice-President Dick Cheney to 'check the facts' - what would the outcry sound like from other journalists and the public?

Yet it turns out a surprising number of writers in science will send parts of their articles to the  researchers whose work they are covering under the guise of fact checking, and that seems to be okay with many others.  Is science journalism that hard? Is that a good policy? Ananyo Bhattacharya, chief online editor of Nature, gets it right when he notes in The Guardian that kind of behavior doesn't serve journalism, science or readers.

I have noted many times that science journalism departments have disappeared not simply because media companies are greedy but rather that when science journalists became advocates and cheerleaders, they stopped being trusted guides for the public and the public stopped reading mainstream media science.  Science journalists were always under the gun by scientists for getting too much wrong, while the public more recently distrusted journalists due to perceived bias, so one founding principle of Science 2.0 was to make more scientists into journalists(1) and at least get the facts right.

It turned out to be a lot more complicated than that, at least when it comes to providing context. Science journalism is hard and certainly some journalists may be "fanboys" of science and so aren't going to write anything that will arouse the ire of someone they have heard of(2), but some fact checking for anyone is a good idea - however, sending an article, or even parts, to the source can get weird.  I understand why it happens, especially when a complex story has a short time frame, but it still shouldn't happen.

 Scientists who get written about here can gripe if they want but the solution is to either write their own Science 2.0 piece or let it go and be happy with a press release in the future.  Bhattacharya says some scientists might 'withdraw' their participation if they don't like an article or get to check the content in advance but so what?  The Science 2.0 brand is strong, as is Reuters or anyone else of any size.  Is a journalist going to refuse to talk to USA Today if they don't get pre-approval of a piece? I think not. A lab writes one article per year and if a science writer is so star-struck they think they need one researcher to make an article valid, they are in the wrong field.

Science 2.0 fave Prof. David Kroll broached the topic after watching an interview with Trine Tsouderos where he heard that she ran some swatches of copy by sources in the interests of 'getting it right' - and his informal poll of other science writers confirmed they do it too. Egads, did the reading public just feel their hearts sink a little? 

I think they are wrong, 100 percent of them, but he got similar input from mainstream science writers so you see the problem.  Again, science is hard, I understand that, and it's hard because writers aren't always dealing in facts or quotes but also in context, and a primary source can be tough going for a journalist who is expected to somehow be literate in a dozen fields that researchers got their Ph.D.s in - and to write articles in a day (or, in the case of some consumer science sites, up to six pieces each day!).  I have fact checked my context plenty of times - but with researchers in those fields who are here at Science 2.0, not with the researcher whose work I am writing about.  'Tell me if I am getting this right' to a fellow writer who happens to have an education depth I do not is much different than making the primary source an assistant editor.

In true science media fashion, Kroll's article has 109 comments while the actual video itself has only been seen 300 times by the entire world, which means most of the commenters never watched it, they took the context on faith.  It's easy to criticize the public for not doing their own research, clearly most in science don't either.

How could a journalist cover ClimateGate by sending his copy to Michael Mann or people at East Anglia?  Four times per year we get articles hinting about life on other planets and a missing link but it would be pointless to let them spin their work for the public.

In 5 years of Science 2.0, I have found scientists incredibly gracious in their time, both in answering questions and in writing articles, they want the public to know what they are doing - but we have never given in to a request or a demand to see a pre-print, because in a comment on Kroll's piece, John Rennie lays out what might happen; if our coverage of the work is favorable, they might talk about their 'help', which the public will regard as being a public relations effort rather than insight, and if our coverage is critical, they can cite the items a writer was unsure about as proof we didn't know what we are talking about.

The only solution is to let them provide context and insight when you are covering their research, but with no strings attached and no editorial pen.  If they don't like having no control, move on, regardless of who it is.

Deborah Blum mentioned Edward Teller once demanded the right to see the interview in advance, and she gave in, but that was likely a case of a young journalist being star struck and wanting a big name.   Despite only correctly a few technical details, she said he hated the piece anyway and never wanted to talk to her again.

She was never going to win in that scenario and science journalism remains primarily a thankless job today - but it can be respected again if the public sees journalists as outsiders with a gift for making complex topics understandable, and not wanna-be scientists, the way actors and the public regard movie critics, or policy advocates. 

Fact check, yes.   Copy check, no.  Get back to being trusted guides - including, it must be said again, for people who are not your political persuasion.  Ask the awkward questions, even of scientists and studies you like.


(1) Over time, my respect for science journalism has grown and I would instead contend editors were the bulk of the problem in the last decade.  Yes, some journalists are in science to advocate their progressive world views as opposed to caring about science, but for the most part the science journalists remaining want to get the story right.

(2) If humility is not evident, it will be bestowed. From inception, the science writers here knew to euthanize me if I ever came close to writing something like Adam Bly of the now-defunct SEED Magazine wrote about his love of science and its contributors:
My role as editor of this magazine offers me few pleasures greater than sharing a meal with a fascinating scientist. It starts with the ideas on the table, certainly, but for me it's also the distinct cadence, the fluttering of the hands, the brush of the forehead, the coy grin that lets you know you're being let in on one of nature's secrets. Inspired by a friend here in New York who regularly hosts great thinkers in his home, I've even installed (with considerable effort) an oversize blackboard in my dining room for those occasions when you just need to see it in chalk.