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What journalists look for when seeking outside comment from scientists

Working in a news office for a major university, I spend a fair amount of time fielding calls from journalists seeking "independent comment" on new research studies. So I read with great interest a piece (it's admittedly a few days old now) that offers tips for scientists who do such interviews. When describing one of the things he's looking for from his expert sources, (the terrific) science writer Ed Yong writes on his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog:

The most important things you can tell me about a study are its weaknesses. Are there inaccuracies in the paper? Statistical failings? Do you think the conclusions don’t hold water? The last thing I want to do is to credulously cover a weak study. But I don’t work in your field and my bullsh*t detector is probably less finely calibrated than yours. So I’m basically relying on you to help me not mislead my readers. Maybe your comments will persuade me to drop a story because it’s just that bad. Maybe your comments will help me to confront an editor and say: “We shouldn’t cover this story that you seem so insistent on. Look: all these scientists think it’s bunk.”

Yong goes on to outline things he finds not useful, too ("the world’s most banal quote is: 'This research is interesting but more work needs to be done,'" he writes), and there's some lively discussion in the comments section of the entry. One reader, in fact, respectfully disagrees with Yong's argument that the this-research-is-interesting line is a throw-away one, explaining that, like it or not, that's the way science works. She explains, "Journalists may like delivering the final say on research or a project, but that quote is the means by which scientists admit that their findings are not the final say – and that future work may actually prove otherwise." I have a feeling this isn't the end of that debate.

Previously: Alan Alda on communicating science. Yes, M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye Pierce, Challenging scientists to better communicate their ideas to the public, Want to become a better science communicator? Try explaining science to a child and A conversation about the importance of conveying complex scientific concepts to broad audiences

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