Should science journalists check copy with their sources?

I have often heard mathematicians complain — most recently, last night — about their work being mangled when it gets covered in the press.  Why don’t science journalists check with their sources to make sure that the science is presented accurately?

There’s a great discussion of this issue at PLOSBlogs, featuring many well-known science writers and highly-placed editors in the comments.  It’s a tough issue.  On one side, journalists are quite likely to make mistakes about technical subjects (not only science) even if they’re very diligent when conducting the interview.  On the other hand, journalists are not public relations officers, and I tend to agree that it’s important to preserve that distinction, even when there are some costs.

As for me, I would never show copy to a source prior to publication.  Then again, because I mostly write about math, I think people cut me a lot of slack — if I oversimplify somebody’s work, they know that I know that I’m oversimplifying, and respect that I’m bowing to journalistic necessity.

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3 thoughts on “Should science journalists check copy with their sources?

  1. Tom Graber says:

    Why would you “never show copy to a source prior to publication?” I think there’s some important principle that is totally going over my head here. I don’t see why it would make you a public relations officer to do so.

    In writing a research article, would you be unwilling to run a draft by a colleague whose results you were using in order to avoid error? Do you find this to be a flawed analogy?

  2. Noah Snyder says:

    I think journalists absolutely should show quotes to their sources before publication. In fact, I think it’s embarrassing that they don’t. In my experience, I have never been accurately quoted by a journalist (that’s in local newspapers, but my wife had the same experience with the NYTimes). Even worse, many journalists take written notes and do not use an audio recorder. To my mind that’s tantamount to saying you basically don’t care about accurately quoting people. I agree completely with Mark Cuban’s policy that one should only ever communicate with reporters *in writing*.

  3. Noah Snyder says:

    (Though I guess everything I say about journalism as a profession should be taken with a grain of salt. I basically think we should blow up the profession and start over again with people who don’t share the current journalism culture which prioritizes scoops over important old news, shoes-on-the-ground reporting over research, balance over truth, and knowledge of journalism in the abstract over knowledge about the subject matter that you report on.)

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