Science journalists – time to set the record straight

I didn’t expect to start the New Year with a rant. Right now I’m supposed to be writing about the NHS but I am feeling the need to vent.

Once again, science journalists are being told off for being stupid.

I long ago accepted that part of being a journalist is to deal with criticism, complaints and comments along the line of ‘anyone could do your job, it’s really easy, so why are you doing it all wrong’.crumpledpaper

There will always be someone you are upsetting/offending. It’s the nature of the job.

You will never please everyone and actually if you were setting out trying to please people, you may have missed the point about what a journalist does.

But I have now officially had my fill of people (and by people, I mean scientists), slapping our wrists and telling us we must do better.

Over the past (ahem) decade (and some) I have received plenty of criticism.

In fact just over Christmas I received a complaint for a story I did on vaccination in which I used the word ‘outsmart’ in relation to a bacteria which can’t ‘think’ so the entire piece is therefore inaccurate and I should be ashamed (I’m paraphrasing but you get the gist).

That point is potentially fair had I been writing a paper for publication in a science journal.

But I am writing for a general audience, trying to find engaging ways to talk about technical topics. I am not trying to impress experts with my detailed knowledge of microbiology.

As such I stand by my intro, which was carefully crafted, and did its job perfectly.

Valid point?

I was once called a ‘fuckwit’ and ‘self-styled health journalist’ by an anonymous GP blogger who did not like the way I presented some minor detail in a health story at the BBC.

Bit harsh, considering the BBC decided my job title, not me.

I did not cover the latest story to receive the outrage of the science statisticians, so I cannot comment on its validity.

From a quick search, it does seem like the usual case of ‘shoot the messenger’ when the Science press release, original paper and the scientists themselves, were claiming the very things that seem to have caused the upset.

There are many factors which hamper the ability of science journalists to do their job which include time, irrational demands from news editors, and the increasing dominance of the embargo system.

But trust me when I say that any highly specific issue you may have with the reporting of a story can not be just explained away by the journalist not having a clue.

So to all future complainants, here are a few stock responses which may help:

– Yes I do have a science degree, thank you for asking

– I’m not writing for scientists or doctors, I have to take everyone into account

– Yes, I have read the paper in question, I always do


– I made the choices I did after I speaking at length to the scientists involved and other experts

– A news story is not doing the same job as a scientific paper in a journal

– Peer review is not necessarily indicative of good science

– Anything published in a journal is in the public domain

– Your opinion is just that. Others will have different ones

– If you swear at me or call me names, you immediately undermine any point you may have had

– No you cannot see my piece before publication. Can I see your results before publication?

– And no I will not rewrite my intro or any other bit of my article because you think it would sound better that way

Phew, that feels like a weight off, and might save us all a bit of time.



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