A few years ago, in one of my science writing classes at Johns Hopkins University, a guest speaker shared one of her most regrettable moments as a science journalist. She was a writer at the respected magazine Science News, and several years previously had covered a high-profile paper published in a top journal. Dutifully, she included in her story some of the figures from the paper that captured the essence of the findings. Only later did she (and others in the scientific and journalism communities) learn that those figures contained an error – one that obviously had slipped past the peer reviewers. She was mortified. “I should have checked the math myself,” she told the class. Printing something that was untrue was one of the worst sins she could have committed in her view; even though she had accurately reflected the findings published in the peer-reviewed paper.
As a new student in science journalism – after a long career in environmental science and policy – the incident was a revelation for me: I realized how much scientists and journalists are alike. Accuracy is critical to both them, and it forms the cornerstone of their professional life, namely, credibility. [Read more…]