Getting science right: A response to The Atlantic Monthly

Getting science right: A response to The Atlantic Monthly

By Cindy Merrick, STATS Intern, Ph.D. Candidate

Last week we took The Atlantic and other media outlets to task for their shabby reporting on an NIH study about a link between coffee and longevity. In a pugilistic response, The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield fired back at the criticism, describing the science news cycle by saying “for every study that comes out, a host of media outlets will report to one extreme, and then some smart guy or girl will come along and prove everyone wrong.” She has examples of this apparent truism, including another story The Atlantic screwed up, and generously gives links to other news agencies that also missed the mark on this and other stories.

Apart from the implication that science writing, apparently, doesn’t require a “smart guy or girl” to produce correctly the first time, Greenfield tells us that if they get it wrong, don’t worry! “We inevitably find someone…who digs into the research.” Then they’ll report on that too. Parsing her words, one must conclude that as long as a story is reported on, it doesn’t need to be right. The editing and revision processes are to take place after the story comes out.

Greenfield adds gravity to her argument by reminding us that “science is complicated.” To her this means that reporters have to rely on other web sites (Science Daily and EurekAlert) to “understand what a 60 page write-up means for non-science people,” and for press releases to “put the findings into nice digestible little sound-bites.” For every other kind of news, this would be the journalist’s job. And, not to nit-pick, but the NIH’s study about coffee and longevity was 14 pages, not 60. (Actually, six of the pages were data tables, and two pages listed references. Would it have killed someone to check?)

Greenfield’s appalling denial of responsibility undermines the very essence of journalism:  to get the facts and report them accurately. The first time.

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