Writing for Science: Beyond the Press Release

While writing that last post, I was getting increasingly frustrated with the way that science is being reported in the media. Too often press releases are just regurgitated by various outlets without actually delving into the paper or the issue at hand. There is a great article by John Timmer about this exact issue as it pertained to the reporting of the findings of the ENCODE project.

Seth Mnookin notes that this year has been particularly tough for aficionados or practitioners of science writing. He offers a great overview of the state of science writing and journalism this past year. He summarizes,

One of our biggest stars was revealed as a fraud; publications that should be exemplars of nuanced, high-quality reporting are allowing confused speculation to clutter their pages; researchers and PIOs are nudging reporters towards overblown interpretations; and everything we write about will probably end up being wrong anyway — not that we’ll bother to let you know when the time comes.


If this photo doesn’t encourage you to read Joe Hanson’s article, perhaps knowing he gave it the caption “Chicks dig beards“, will get you on board.

The outlook seems pretty bleak, but fortunately there are some beacons of hope. Today Scientific American released its compilation of the Best Science Writing Online 2012. The collection includes pieces from some of my favourite science writers, journalists, and bloggers. While I haven’t read it yet I am sure it is filled with greatness. I encourage you to read the piece by Joe Hanson, (who blogs at It’s Okay to Be Smart), titled On Beards, Biology, and Being a Real American, then go out an order or buy the full book, and have your faith in good science writing restored.

4 thoughts on “Writing for Science: Beyond the Press Release

  1. Thanks for the link. More importantly, what can we (the science writing and science community) do to combat this problem? I think it’s worth discussing.

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  3. Thanks for the comment, I agree that it is a very important issue. I think there is enough fault to go around between over zealous researchers trying to get press, and over zealous reporters trying to get attention grabbing stories. So one possible way of combating this would be to have more scientists working as writers/reporters, or some increased training for science reporters (see: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnmcquaid/2012/08/02/what-journalists-bring-to-science-writing/). But given the tough times that are falling onto newspapers, hiring a scientist might not be an option. To that end I think online science writers, bloggers, and new media (podcasts, minute youtube videos, infographics etc.) are definitely the wave of the future–the vary nature of science stories often seems to lend themselves to being told online. Those in the online science writing community need to not only to have a bit of a science background in order to properly analyze the studies in question, but also a journalistic background would benefit them greatly. Not only in helping to make the findings (or lack of) accessible to the public, but also in gaining the sort of prestige that traditional journalists have, that is often perceived as lacking in online writers and bloggers.
    What are some of your thoughts on the issue? Are online writers/bloggers perceived to be less trustworthy that traditional writers? What can be done to challenge or change that perception?

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