What makes ‘good science journalism’?

From ‘Your Doppelgänger Is Out There and You Probably Share DNA With Them’, The New York Times, August 23, 2022:

Dr. Esteller also suggested that there could be links between facial features and behavioral patterns, and that the study’s findings might one day aid forensic science by providing a glimpse of the faces of criminal suspects known only from DNA samples. However, Daphne Martschenko, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics who was not involved with the study, urged caution in applying its findings to forensics.

There are two big problems here: 1) Esteller’s comment is at the doorstep of eugenics, and 2) the reporter creates a false balance by reporting both Esteller’s comment and Martschenko’s rebuttal to that comment, when in fact the right course of action would’ve been to drop this portion entirely, as well as take a closer look at why Esteller et al. conducted the study in the first place and whether the study paper and other work at the Esteller lab is suspect.

This said, it’s a bit gratifying (in a bad way) when a high-stature foreign news publication like The New York Times makes a dangerous mistake in a science-related story. Millions of people are misinformed, which sucks, but when independent scientists and other readers publicly address these mistakes, their call-outs create an opportunity for people (though not as many as are misinformed) to understand exactly what is wrong and, more importantly from the PoV of readers in India, that The New York Times also makes mistakes, that it isn’t a standard-bearer of good science journalism and that being good is a constant and diverse process.

1) “NYT also makes mistakes” is important to know if only to dispel the popular and frustrating perception that “all American news outlets are individually better than all Indian news outlets”. I had to wade through a considerable amount of this when I started at The Hindu a decade ago – at the hands of most readers as well as some colleagues. I still face this in a persistent way in the form of people who believe some article in The Atlantic is much better than an article on the same topic in, say, The Wire Science, for few, if any, reasons beyond the quality of the language. But of course this will always set The Atlantic and The Wire Science and its peers in India apart: English isn’t the first language for many of us – yet it seldom gets in the way of good storytelling. In fact, I’ve often noticed American publications in particular to be prone to oversimplification more often than their counterparts in Europe or, for that matter, in India. In my considered (but also limited) view, the appreciation of science stories is also a skill, and the population that aspires to harbour it in my country is often prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

2) “NYT isn’t a standard-bearer of good science journalism” is useful to know because of the less-than-straightforward manner in which publications acquire a reputation for “good science journalism”. Specifically, publications aren’t equally good at covering all branches of scientific study; some are better in some fields and others are at some others. Getting your facts right, speaking to all the relevant stakeholders and using sensitive language will get you 90% of the way, but you can tell the differences between publications by how well they cover the remaining 10%, which comes from beat knowledge, expertise and having the right editors.

3) “Being good is a constant and diverse process” – ‘diverse’ because of the previous point and ‘constant’ because, well, that’s how it is. It’s not that our previous work doesn’t keep us in good standing but that we shouldn’t overestimate how much that standing counts for. This is especially so in this age of short attention spans, short-lived memories and the subtle but pervasive encouragement to be hurtful towards others on the internet. “Good science journalism” is a tag we need to get by getting every single story right – and in this sense, you, the reader, are better off not doling out lifetime awards to outlets. Instead, understand that no outlet is going to be uniformly excellent at all times and evaluate each story on its own merits. This way, you’ll also create an opportunity for Indian news outlets to be free of the tyranny of unrealistic expectations and even surprise you now and then with excellence of our own.

Finally, none of this is to say that these mistakes happen. They shouldn’t and they’re entirely preventable. Instead, it’s a reminder to keep your eyes peeled at all times and not just when you’re reading an article produced by an Indian outlet.

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