Understanding the scientific method also vital to understanding good journalism

Filed Under (Editing, Reporting techniques, Skills) by on 25-08-2011 and tagged , ,

Great piece by Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review this week about journalism ethics and how science works: A journalist’s guide to the scientific method – and why it’s important

Intuitively we know that the scientific method of research, hypothesis, testing and revision is what we do as journalists. Niles details the connections nicely and ties in how scientists do their job with the SPJ code of ethics.


He fails to point out that journalists also need to understand the scientific method so they can get stories related to science right.

Specifically in the issues of evolution v. creationism and global warming, too many journalists fall short of doing their jobs right.

To start, look at the words used in most stories. Sources and reporters will use the term “believe in” when talking about global warming and evolution.

Belief is non-science. People believe in creationism. They believe in a deity.

Scientific data are accepted or rejected. And the basis for that acceptance or rejection is supposed to come from analysis of the facts and not what a person believes.

While journalists cannot do anything about what  sources say, (i.e. some presidential candidates: “I do not believe in evolution.”), it is wrong for a journalist to use such a term when discussing science or when framing questions.

Likewise, it is time journalists stopped giving equal weight to sources.

In a debate of what science to teach in science classes, scientists and science teachers should be given more weight and credibility than ministers or philosophers. Likewise, if a school board is debating including a course — outside the science curriculum — that compares the various religious creation stories, then ministers and philosophers should have greater  weight than scientists.

I would no more trust a person with only a theological degree discussing science than I would trust a scientist discussing religion.  But the standard style of giving equal time to “He said/She said” quotes rules out giving readers/viewers/listeners of the story the necessary context of who has the greater credibility in a given issue.

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