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, Tips

Traditional Reporting Techniques Still Key to Social Media News Gathering

Portrait of Mark Colvin

Remember your first breaking news story? You ran to a phone booth, pulled a coin from your pocket, and “dialed” your editor. Don’t remember that? Well Mark Colvin does.

As a 35-year veteran journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Colvin has seen technology change dramatically. While the typewriters, carbon copies, switchboards and telex machines have faded away, he sees social media as the most significant change of his career.

“In the last year or so, social media has brought an even more revolutionary development. It’s one which is transforming our approach, particularly to conflict reporting,” said Colvin in an essay for The Punch.

He looks at how Jess Hill (ABC) and Andy Carvin (NPR) used Twitter to find sources in North Africa and sees old-school reporting techniques at the core: cultivating sources and fact checking.

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3 Mac Tips for More Efficient Workflow

Many newsrooms are switching to Macs as they replace old equipment and put more focus on digital. While a Mac isn’t necessarily superior to a PC, it can simplify your computing.

Here are three quick tips that will help you get the most from your MacBook, MacBook Pro or iMac.


Does your desktop look like this?

If it does, then that’s just unacceptable. One of the best features on a Mac is the ability to search the entire computer, and to do so quickly and easily. Start the cleanup by familiarizing yourself with Spotlight. Press Command + Spacebar and you’ll see that the top right corner opens to a search field. (You can also just click on the magnifying glass, but the sooner you get started with keyboard shortcuts, the better.)

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Social Media, Tips

Social Media Is About Failure and Forgiveness

This post was originally published Mar. 25, 2011, for the Asian American Journalists Association.

How to do social media right: experiment, screw up and ask for forgiveness.

Repeat until you succeed.

“Be fearless,” said Kevin Sablan, head of the Orange County Register’s web efforts and new-media leader. He gave a presentation Wednesday on social media and innovation, presented by the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego.

View of the audience at the Microsoft Store during Kevin Sablan's presentation.

The audience at AAJA-San Diego's program on social media and innovation at the Microsoft Store in San Diego, California, on March 23, 2011.

Sablan, AAJA-San Diego’s first speaker of 2011, told the journalists and public relations professionals in attendance that even successful companies like Google have made their share of mistakes. He took us through its product graveyard that houses forgettable products including Google Buzz, its answer to Twitter and Facebook, and Google Wave, which was supposed to make-over Gmail.

Both were flops, Sablan said, but showed the importance of trying something new, giving up when things don’t work and not belaboring failure.

Sablan, a respected member of the Web journalism community, also talked about tools that help people filter, group and make sense of the noise on Facebook, Twitter and other social-media channels.

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