Many scientists don’t understand why reporters won’t let scientists review draft versions of news stories before the stories are published. Some scientists think this is unfair and leads to inaccuracies in news stories about scientific research – but there are reasons that news outlets discourage this sort of pre-publication review. Let’s dig in to that a little bit.
What Scientists Want
There are generally three reasons that a reporter would interview a researcher.
The first reason is that a reporter is writing a story about the researcher’s work, and wants to interview the scientist in order to get a better understanding of the research – what did they do? Why did they do it? What did they learn?
The second reason is that the reporter is writing about someone else’s research, and wants to talk to other scientists in the field in order to better understand the significance of the work and why it matters (if at all).
The third reason is because the reporter is writing about a subject in which the researcher has relevant expertise. For example, a reporter writing about coastal flooding may want to talk to researchers with expertise in climate change, civil infrastructure, public planning, tidal systems, meteorology, and so on.
In any of those three instances, scientists are often concerned that reporters will either misunderstand what was said in an interview or that reporters will place what they’ve said out of context. Essentially, scientists want to make sure that the story: A) gets the science right; and B) doesn’t make them sound stupid.
Those are legitimate concerns. Reporters for reputable news outlets want to get the story right. But all reporters are human, and humans are capable of making mistakes.
As a result, scientists often want to review a draft of a news story before it runs. This, they argue, would give them the opportunity to identify any inaccuracies so that they can be corrected. That seems reasonable, right? Not so fast!
While there are a few news outlets that allow scientists to review a story before publication, most do not. Instead, they take one of three other options.
What (Most) News Outlets Allow
Some news outlets allow reporters to share specific elements of a story with scientists before publication. For example, a reporter may send a scientist his or her quotes ahead of time to make sure they are correct. Or they may send a section of the story describing a specific scientific process that the researcher explained to them during the interview. However, many outlets don’t even allow this level of review.
A second option is for the news outlet to employ fact-checkers. Fact checkers will often follow up with sources to check on the accuracy of quotes or specific elements of a story, but will paraphrase the material. (Why do they do this? I’ll explain that later. Keep reading.) Unfortunately, many news organizations have either reduced or eliminated their fact-checking staff, so this is becoming an increasingly rare practice. Which, in my opinion, stinks. [Full Disclosure: I’m married to a fact checker.]
The third option is the simplest: there is no follow-up process. Editors make sure that the work is internally consistent, and that there are no obvious errors, but trust that the reporter knows what he or she is talking about and move ahead with the story. This is increasingly common, particularly for news outlets that operate on very tight budgets.
This brings us to the question we started with….
Why Don’t Reporters Share Stories With Scientists?
The short answer is that reporters don’t share draft version of stories with scientists because their employers tell them not to. For example, during my 10 years as a reporter, I know for a fact that I would have been fired if my employer found out I shared a story with a source before it was published. It was an absolute no-go, and there were no exceptions.
Why did this rule exist? My employer never explained (and I never asked).
But for the past 11 years, I’ve worked as a science writer and research communicator at a large university. I have worked with hundreds of scientists in a dizzying array of disciplines, and this subject comes up fairly often. In other words, this is something that I’ve put a lot of thought into. And, ultimately, I’ve determined that sharing stories with scientists before they are published is problematic for two reasons.
First, if a story is shared with one of the sources a reporter spoke to, it has to be shared with all of the sources the reporter spoke to – otherwise the reporter is showing a clear bias. Sharing stories with multiple source can then lead to competing sets of “corrections” – particularly when different experts have different interpretations of data; competing theories they back; personal axes to grind; etc. This is not tenable.
Second, some scientists are not good at articulating their expertise in language that is accessible to non-experts – and I’m not talking about a least common denominator audience here. For example, while geneticists and astrophysicists tend to be intelligent people, they will often have difficulty understanding each other’s papers (trust me on this).
This inability to communicate clearly with non-experts can lead to requested changes that may or may not be more accurate, but are certainly more obfuscatory. This is one of the reasons fact checkers don’t read things to scientists verbatim – it gives researchers an opportunity to wordsmith a sentence into oblivion.
As a university science writer, I have interviewed researchers for more than a thousand stories over the past 11 years (and counting). I run all of my university-oriented writing by the relevant researchers (because I’m not a reporter). And I can testify that both of the rationales I outlined above are completely justified. They don’t happen all the time, but they definitely happen.
So, What’s a Scientist to Do?
While reporters are unlikely to share a story with a scientist, there are things that scientists can do to communicate more effectively with reporters and minimize the likelihood that a story will include errors. The short version is: be prepared for the interview.
This sort of media training is fairly simple, and it can make researchers more confident and competent going into an interview. I’ve written separate posts on this, and encourage you to read them if this is something you’re interested.
One post focuses on how to prepare for an interview with print and online reporters. The second post focuses on how to prepare for an interview with TV or radio (or video or podcasting) reporters. I hope you find them useful.
To any reporters reading this: are there other explanations for not sharing a pre-pub story with researchers? If so, please share them!