- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
How to Avoid Contributing to Misinformation
By Yasmin Tayag / 3 minute read
Sometimes science journalists inadvertently contribute to the misinformation problem. Circumstances like tight deadlines, limited word counts, editorial pressure, and a lack of access to fact-checkers make us vulnerable to errors and missteps. The rest of this handbook contains detailed guidance about responsible science journalism, but here are a few things to consider that directly relate to misinformation.
Misinformation often takes the form of incomplete or poorly interpreted science. The debunked, but persistent, belief that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for Covid, for example, reflects an incomplete understanding of the research: Initial investigations into the drug were rooted in rational science, but further research showed that it was ineffective. When writing about science that is evolving — especially in stories based on the release of a new study — it’s wise to include ample context about the research that came before. Whenever possible, update older stories to include the new information. Include this context early on, as opposed to the end of the piece, to ensure that your audience will see it.
The journalistic urge to draw a neat conclusion can also lead audiences to come away with misinformed views. The sheer number of stories on the internet about whether eggs are good or bad for you can attest to this. In reality, there probably won’t be a consensus, because such a statement would probably depend on factors like the type and number of eggs being consumed and how those eggs were cooked. Science rarely provides opportunities for journalists to sum up findings without any caveats, so be on the lookout for gross oversimplifications that could generate myths.
Headlines and social-media posts
Crafting a headline that’s both catchy and accurate is challenging. It’s tempting to sum up the findings of a study in a headline or a tweet, but do so with care and caution. The goal is to prevent audiences from coming away with an incomplete understanding of the science and repeating it as fact. One actual headline, “Ivermectin shows ‘antiviral effect’ against COVID, Japanese company says,” is an example of a framing that editors should avoid. Even though the story provided more context, many people will see only the headline and could be left misunderstanding reality.
In many newsrooms, crafting headlines or social-media posts can involve a lot of back-and-forth among writers, editors, and the audience-development team. These conversations can be frustrating, but I urge you to push for accuracy above all else, resisting the urge to compromise for the sake of engagement or search traffic.
Build scientific literacy
One of the reasons I think many people struggle to keep up with science, and to trust it, is that they lack an understanding of the scientific process. A key part of battling the spread of misinformation is bolstering scientific literacy, says John Cook of the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University. When you can, help people understand that science is slow because good science involves repeated experiments, analysis, and peer review. Explain that studies can come to different conclusions because data sets and experimental design vary. That’s why it can take a long time for scientists to reach a consensus — and why it’s significant when they do so.
When I interview scientists, I quite often hear, “We don’t know yet.” Let’s normalize journalism stating that the science is not conclusive or that scientists still don’t have all the answers. That doesn’t always make for the sexiest story, but it helps people understand the process for getting at truth — that it’s a process and not just a destination.