Viewpoint: Science and journalism should bridge gap

By Linda Nguyen

Science and the media don’t always see eye to eye.

I’m lucky enough to understand both sides of the whole media versus research battle. Scientists don’t always like journalists because they assert that journalists never get it right. Journalists are frustrated with scientists because they can’t seem to explain their research in an understandable way half the time, and the other half of the time, the scientists won’t talk to journalists. Maybe this is just a student journalist problem.

Regardless, I think both sides should exert a little more effort to understand the other side.

Student journalists are students. Sometimes we feel like our workload is kind of ridiculous and we’re expected to be as good as professional journalists, but we’re students. We try really hard to write and report to the best of our ability.

Our editors, who are also students, try to ensure that the writing is understandable and accurately represents what is being said. And this is across the board, not just when it comes to research.

Research is harder. It’s hard to write a news article about scientific research when you don’t have the background to understand genetics and neuroscience with a bunch of other technical jargon.

This doesn’t mean students are free from the responsibility to try to understand it. At their very core, journalists are supposed to be accurate. We are taught that accuracy is important. But sometimes student journalists’ understanding of the research project isn’t completely correct.

It also doesn’t excuse the journalist from doing his or her research. We, as journalists, have a duty to do our due diligence and check to ensure that the research we are writing about is in a journal that has been peer-reviewed.

We also have a duty to try to read and understand the research article.

I understand this can be hard for journalists. It can even be hard for students who have taken several classes in the subject, but isn’t the purpose of journalism to explain things in a way that is accessible to everyone?

Again, journalists have to do their research, so they can go in prepared to ask questions about what they don’t understand, and so they can accurate report the research to their audience. Easier said than done, no doubt. But it’s the job of a journalist. We have a responsibility to accurately report and write.

That’s a large expectation on students. But I think some responsibility lies with the scientists as well, especially when talking to student journalists. They can’t expect the student to follow along whatever they are talking about if they use jargon to explain the study to the students.

A good rule of thumb for researchers, not just professors but graduate and undergraduate researchers, is to explain the subject in the exact way it is to be written.

A little secret about news articles is that journalists use direct quotes, which is exactly what is said in the interview. It’s part of how we are taught to write.

While researchers are typically not allowed to pre-read journalists’ stories, it is not beyond the scope of their power as an interviewee to ask the reporter to explain to them their understanding of the research project in order to ensure that if anything is paraphrased or written out of a direct quote, it is still true to the research project.

In fact, it’s encouraged for a source to ask the journalist to read back quotes for verification or even to ensure they understand the material.

And it is really nice when a researcher takes the time to ensure that the reporter is interpreting the material correctly.

I know this is a tall order on both the part of journalists and researchers, but in the end, both sides can gain from this symbiotic relationship.

Researchers can disseminate their research to the popular culture and journalists can write their story and report on what’s happening.

Linda Nguyen is a junior journalism and neuroscience double major from Missouri City. She is the copy desk chief for The Lariat.