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4 Ways to Avoid Mistakes When Reporting on Scientific Studies

In April, I went to the Science Literacy Workshop in Berkeley, Calif. Here are a few things I took away from it — which have been useful for my newsroom as some reporters try to slog through scientific research.

1) Be wary of press releases from universities or any group that touts new research.

Before we jump in we should ask ourselves: Who’s funding this research? You’d be surprised how often interest groups sponsor university research. Has it been peer reviewed? Is the journal respected?

2) Check for sample size.

Even peer-reviewed journal articles have flaws. Read the abstract first, and then read the whole study.  Check for sample size. Is the author claiming a huge scientific breakthrough from data taken out of a tiny sample?

3) Reporting on current studies is a minefield.

A stage two study, for instance, has established very little in the way of fact. The researchers have just started gathering data for publication, which means the study is not-peer reviewed and any claims from the study are preliminary. Think of it this way, the more publicity a researcher can get about his project in the early stages, the more money he’s likely to raise.

4) Call another scientist familiar with the topic.

When in doubt, call another scientist familiar with the topic, but not involved in the research. Ask her to assess the validity of the work. Also, ask the scientist who authored the report about what the study DOESN’T tell us. Dig deep into the limitations of the study. These people are grilled by their peers in the publishing process (hopefully) and any honest scientist will be up front with pointed questions. If they’re defensive or downplay the study’s shortcomings, it’s a red flag.

News Gathering, Social Media

Using Facebook as a Reporter

This post was originally published as a note on Luke O’Neill’s Facebook page, May 25, 2011. It is used with permission and has been edited for publication on ModernJournalist.com.

Screenshot of Luke O'Neill's Facebook page

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve found a number of stories through Facebook. In fact, I have been able to source more contacts through Facebook than I have through Twitter.

I write for the Irish Echo, a small publication in Sydney, Australia. I used Facebook to find sources during the Queensland floods, Cyclone Yasi, the Christchurch earthquake and the Japanese tsunami, earthquake and ensuing Fukushima nuclear scare.

Here are some example of stories sourced using Facebook search:

We need Irish voices in our stories. The catastrophic events I mention above were not fitting for my newspaper until we were able to find that Irish people were involved. So there is a sort of strange, self-imposed nationality-based restriction to the stories I write. This is where Facebook came in.

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