Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Why I will always hate aphids

A 500-word news article on a research paper and two days to write it. You'd think it would be simple. Yeah, right. One week into my first foray into the world of science journalism and I feel like my soul has been severely paper-cut with my own poorly phrased copy.

To be fair, the majority of the responsibility for this probably lies with me. Today's Important Journalistic Lesson was how much writers have to rely on talking to the author of a paper and other experts in the field. Understanding a paper is one thing, but there's no way a normal human-being could absorb enough of the nuances of a subject area in an hour to see where it fits into the bigger picture. What might appear to be a paper about the mating dance of the Irish Pink-spotted squid could be key to the evolution of language to a squid-expert. Or the missing link! Or it could just be a paper about oddly-behaved calamari. Sometimes, the press release gives you a clue to the important take-home message of a paper. Other times, the press release is not entirely accurate. 

This is why science writers call up the author and ask them lots of questions before writing anything. Unfortunately, through a combination of French public holidays and the only author on the paper capable of answering my questions off hiking in the wilderness, I had to make do with a slight language barrier and a giant understanding barrier. And when it came to talking to other experts in the field, my two days of expert-hunting experience failed me utterly and the only person I managed to snare was fairly luke-warm about the paper, which wasn't much help.

Then the deadline caught up with me and it was all 'get it submitted', 'check the facts', 'find related articles for the website', 'work out how to use the complicated submission system', 'panic, panic, panic.' Then it was gone and I was left with a vague feeling of disquiet.

Fast forward a few days and I can see that I could have done a few things better. Such as checking that the copy-editors hadn't removed an integral "-like" from the title. Unfortunately, a few scientists who commented on the post also spotted the flaws. So we had to issue a correction. Then then someone else pointed  out a paper from April that I missed, and we had to correct something else. And I've been in a science-based sulk ever since.

What this did make me realise is that journalists sometimes get an unfairly hard time when science reporting goes a bit wrong. But it's impossible to know everything about a subject and you put a certain degree of trust in the peer review process, the authors accurately representing their work, and the press release not over-selling the importance of the results.

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