- 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
By Melinda Wenner Moyer / 4 minute read
It can be difficult to tell whether sources are truly knowledgeable in a particular area and, moreover, whether they might have an agenda or bias that shapes their opinions. One approach is for reporters to ask toward the end of every interview if there’s anyone they should steer clear of in their field. Once, when I interviewed a female violence-prevention researcher about evidence-based approaches to preventing sexual violence, she told me that I might want to avoid a particular violence-prevention scientist who had recently been accused of sexual assault himself.
It’s also a good idea to take a look at a source’s résumé or CV, which is often available via their institutional webpage. (If not, ask if the source can send you one.) Reporters can check to see if the source has won any research awards or held leadership positions in professional societies. (But also keep in mind how long the source has been working in the field; a postdoc or new assistant professor may not have earned a lot of professional accomplishments but still be a great source.) Reporters can look, too, at the papers the scientist has published to see with whom they have collaborated. “It’s always a red flag if they tend to publish papers with just their name and one other name,” says New York Times science reporter Apoorva Mandavilli. In those cases, the sources may not be well regarded.
Journalists should also research the journals in which a source has published, as well as those the source may have edited. It can be tough to tell if a journal is of high quality or not; some journals covering niche areas may not be well known. (They may not have a high impact factor, a metric that reflects how frequently a journal’s papers are cited by other papers; it’s typically listed on the journal’s website.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “bad.” Journalists should, however, steer clear of sources who publish in predatory journals, which are driven by financial self-interest rather than quality and scholarship. Termed “predatory journals” because they prey on scientists’ need to publish, they often deviate from best practices, including peer review, and publish misleading information. (For an up-to-date list of predatory journals, see predatoryjournals.com.)
Look into your sources’ work and actually make sure that what they might say is relevant for your story.Wudan Yan, Seattle-based freelance science journalist
Reporters can search YouTube and watch sources’ video interviews and conference presentations to get an idea of how they speak and whether they are engaging — a tip of particular value to audio and video journalists. “It’s surprising how many sources you’ll find are in YouTube videos, and sometimes you can pick up a vibe from them there,” says the science journalist Robin Lloyd, a former online-news editor at Scientific American. Googling sources can also provide a snapshot of how many media interviews they have done and how frequently they’ve been quoted. But while it can be good to interview someone with media experience, reporters should also try not to quote the same people everyone else quotes.
One potential red flag is when a source’s ideas vastly differ from those of other sources. “If what they’re saying goes completely against the grain of what you’re hearing from everybody else, sometimes that can mean that they are really onto something that just hasn’t taken hold yet. Or it can mean they’re just wrong,” Mandavilli says. Asking other sources for their opinions about this person could help, but if the field is embroiled in controversy, and other scientists are trying to protect their own interests, it can be tough to decipher who’s right. Do they dislike this researcher because he’s doing bad science, or because his ideas challenge theirs? In such cases, a journalist might need to review the scientist’s work or confer with colleagues who have covered the subject. “One of our responsibilities as science journalists is to distinguish between legitimate criticism, which is essential to science, and biased or unreasonable censure, which only hinders it,” says Ferris Jabr, a science journalist and contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.
It is also important for journalists to uncover potential conflicts of interest that shape a source’s stance. That can be as easy as asking sources if they have ever received money from, or consulted for, companies or advocacy organizations or has ever been with a speakers’ bureau. Reporters can also hunt for conflict-of-interest disclosures in a source’s papers or conference abstracts. ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database is useful, allowing journalists to search for physicians who have received payments from pharmaceutical and medical-device companies.
Public-records databases should be used as well. Not only will they provide information about any past criminal behavior, but they can also uncover businesses that might involve sources in conflicts of interest. Journalists also need to be aware that nonprofit organizations can present themselves as independent or grassroots but be backed by companies or industries — so-called “AstroTurfing” groups. It can be challenging to identify who funds an organization. Journalists can try searching for information about the organization on GuideStar or looking at the group’s Form 990 tax returns.