What can science and journalism learn from each other?

Katie Palmer
Dec 5, 2018 · 4 min read

This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how journalists can take advantage of science’s tools to support more robust, impactful reporting. As a science journalist, I started with a relatively narrow lens on that challenge: I wanted to see how open access science could help journalists tell stories that reflect the true pace and process of science, rather than relying on antiquated and sometimes misleading press releases controlled by science publishers.

But being surrounded by journalists from around the world, brilliant reporters who have experienced every beat and business model, has made me think much more broadly about my field, its values, and its practices. It’s a lot to process at once. So as I throw myself into learning, I’ve had to come up with ways of distilling the flood of information. And since science is what I know best, that’s where I found my heuristic.

Everywhere I look, I see parallels between science and journalism — in the ethics that guide our work, in the foibles that impair the best of that work, and in the technologies that promise to either upend or turbo-charge our fields. Here are the places where I see scientists and journalists most clearly mirroring each other, and where we could potentially learn from each other.

1. We both strive to attain knowledge using objective methods

This comes with an important addendum: “…even though we recognize that goal is not perfectly achievable.” Journalists love to argue over whether objectivity should be their goal. My take — and the one that aligns with the scientific approach — is that journalists, being human beings, can never be perfectly objective and unbiased. But our methods can be.

In recent years, several journalists have turned to science for inspiration as they imagine how their reporting process could be more objective. The most common scientific practice nominated for journalistic use? Replicability: the ability for other people to re-do your work and see what happens for themselves. Every scientific paper ideally comes with step-by-step directions so another scientist can repeat an experiment and make sure its result is sound. Sure, a researcher can design a bad experiment, or perhaps even one that is purposely skewed to give a particular result. (Scientists: They’re human beings too!) But if they have, their methods will quickly find them out.

In journalism, the equivalent is radically transparent sourcing. A reader or other journalists would be able to see who you talked to — even the unquoted sources — read full transcripts, and dive into the source material. (This is how rigorous fact-checking works, too.) With journalism continuing to shift from the printed page to the internet, it’s now technically possible for an outlet to host and share this bulk of information, and some outlets already do.

2. We’re both subject to “publish or perish”

Those steps toward objective methods are promising, but they’re consistently undermined by economic pressures. Sure, it’s technically possible to publish all the data that goes into an investigation, but collating all those sources takes time, and hosting it in perpetuity takes money. In the meantime, ad dollars are disappearing, and the easiest way to keep them coming is to publish more stories, more highly targeted at desirable (rich) reader populations.

Science might seem immune to financial incentives, since most public-facing research is funded by federal governments and private foundations. But the majority of research in the United States is actually funded by corporations. And if an academic is lucky enough to have their research funded, their career depends on whether it also gets published. The studies that get published, overwhelmingly, are the ones that confirm the scientist’s (usually exciting, counterintuitive, hyper-novel) hypothesis. Over time, scientists are encouraged to do experiments that lead to splashy results, incentivized by measures of success based on publication count and the overall subscription rate of the journals their papers land in.

Sound familiar? Journalism’s economic incentives support a bias toward the sensational and exceptional, too, as the Correspondent’s Rob Wijnberg writes. Both establishments’ biases distort the truth. Both dilute the quality of information, which is used to make critical personal and policy decisions, that reaches the public. Both are inherent to human enterprises — but humans can fight back.

3. We’re both dealing with an information crisis — or renaissance

The internet has made it easier than ever to generate and share information. But science and journalism, our traditional conduits for new, trustworthy, and valuable information, have both been slow to adapt.

Science bills itself as an ongoing, self-correcting process of knowledge acquisition. It now has the perfect platform to document and organize that iterative process — especially critical as scientists are buried by more than 2 million papers every year. But papers are still primarily published in PDF form, making them more difficult to search and synthesize, and many remain locked in paywall-dependent databases.

And instead of taking advantage of the world’s worth of information and perspectives now at their fingertips, many journalistic publications have doubled down on reporting the same stories as their competitors — or worse, simply retreading old ground with a sprinkling of analysis.

Both science and journalism have the ability to capitalize on these new information systems. Some academics are trying to build more centralized networks for tracking the scientific process from hypothesis to publication, constructing knowledge graphs out of accumulated evidence that reveal far more than a single search query could. And journalism publications are incorporating the voices of readers and their expertise directly into the story identification and reporting process, or leveraging automated systems to help filter and discover new sources.

Over the rest of the year, I’ll be diving into methods for discovering, organizing, and reporting information that take advantage of the open web. Sure, it’s all an experiment — but how else can I expect to learn?

JSK Class of 2019

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