Much of the blame for the public’s poor understanding of science must go to a little studied but culturally pivotal genre: news report headlines. Short snappy headlines provide the lazy reader with just enough information to totally misconstrue a story.
There’s a reason why the writing in newspapers doesn’t look like the writing found in scientific journals.
Newspaper readers have needs and values that differ from the those of the scientific community. Scientists require a huge level of precision in order to get their jobs done, and they are used to writing for other scientists (or perhaps college students who want to be scientists). The documents that scientists point to as examples of clear, accurate writing presume an incredible amount of prior knowledge — not just vocabulary words and factual knowledge, but abstract concepts like the scientific method and the relationship between applied and theoretical research. Science papers are almost completely devoid of verbs other than “is,” and science papers are almost all credited to large groups of participants (even though only a small number of participants will actually have helped write the document that bears their name). I don’t note these points in order to complain — these are just features of the scientific world.
But science is a vast subject. While a nuclear physicist might have a good sense of whether a particular animal study experiment is well-designed, the nuclear physicist might be unable to assess the significance of this or that particular animal behavioral observation. So while scientists rely on their own specialized genres in order to communicate with others within their specialty, even a trained scientist must rely on a good science writer to produce generally-accessible representations of knowledge generated in distant scientific fields.
I used to write for an engineering newsletter, and I saw first-hand that few scientists are gifted with the ability to explain their work in terms that Joe Sixpack can understand. Back in 1992, when virtual reality was all the rage, I interviewed Randy Pausch, the CMU professor who recently became famous for giving an inspiring talk about how he is facing his impending death. But few people of any profession share Pausch’s ability to communicate.
Often, then, the journalists are often on their own when it comes to translating a two hours of academic rambling into an 800-word news feature that attempts to make the latest scientific discovery seem relevant to the average reader.
But Language Log’s complaint about headlines highlights another problem. Reporters generally don’t write their own headlines. For large papers,
there might be a sub-editor whose job is to write all the headlines,
but for middle-sized papers, the layout artists are the ones with
control over the page. They may scan the article quickly and come up
with a headline that fits — both in the sense of being appropriate to
the topic, and also that fills the given amount of space. When a story
is sent out over wire services, so that hundreds of regional and local
papers can reprint it, each paper will probably reprint it with a
slightly different layout, meaning that the headline might need to be
longer or shorter to fill the given space.
So, even if science reporters meticulously research an article, and
check to make sure that their own original editors don’t give the piece
an inaccurate headline, once that story gets syndicated, the author has
no control over the headline that will appear above the story.
Journalists have to write for a general audience, and news articles
tend to simplify in order to make complex subtle points seem
interesting and relevant to the general reader. A reporter who is
writing on a deadline is far more likely to call up an expert on the
phone and get some quick quotes than to sort through scientific studies
that were written for an expert audience that does not include
journalists. Even journalists who specialize in science reporting may
find themselves writing about astrophysics in the morning, human cell
biology in the afternoon, and plate tectonics the next morning.
I just started a unit on science reporting in my introductory news
writing class. Tomorrow
we’ll start discussing It Ain’t Necessarily So (which offers
numerous case studies of incidents in which the media have distorted
the public perception of science by latching onto a partial truth,
sensationalizing, and/or editorializing). Yesterday I invited SHU math
professor Josh Sasmor to speak to my class yesterday. His final
take-home message was that reporters have an obligations to be critical
of the statistical evidence handed to them by their sources. (He said
they should take each statistic with “that much salt,” miming a
something the shape of a salt lick.)