The challenges of science journalism in the “big data” age

Regular readers of this blog or visitors to this site should know about science journalist Erika Check Hayden’s piece, “What the ‘limits of DNA’ story reveals about the challenges of science journalism in the ‘big data’ age.” You should read the entire piece, but here are excerpts:

On 2 April, Science Translational Medicine published a study on DNA’s shortcomings in predicting disease. My editors and I had decided not to cover the study last week after we saw it in the journal’s embargoed press packet, because my sources offered heavy critiques of its methods. But it was a tough choice: we knew the paper was bound to get a lot of other coverage, as it conveyed a provocative message, would be published in a prominent journal, and would be highlighted at a press conference at the well-attended annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. Its lead authors, Bert Vogelstein and Victor Velculescu of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore, Maryland, are also leaders in the cancer genetics field.

I ended up writing about the paper anyway after it made a huge media splash that prompted fury among geneticists. In a thoughtful post at the Knight Science Journalism tracker, Paul Raeburn asked yesterday why other reporters didn’t notice the problems with the study that I wrote about. Having been burned by my own share of splashy papers that go bust, I think the “limits of DNA “ story underscores a few broader issues for our work as science journalists:

1. Science consists of more and more “big data” studies whose findings depend on statistical methods that few of us reporters can understand on our own.

2. Challenges in the news business are ratcheting up pressure on all of us.

3. We are only as good as our sources.

4. It’s becoming more difficult to trust traditional scientific authorities.

5. Beware the deceptively simple storyline.

6. Getting the story right matters more than ever.

Her ending was a home run – and mirrors the mission of our website and our work:

“…people use our reporting to help inform decisions that have a major impact on their health and welfare. We owe it to our readers to be sure that we’re telling them the whole story, and that our stories are based on solid science.”



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Comments (2)

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Greg Pawelski

April 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm

We are forced to confront the realization that genotype does not equal phenotype. The particular sequence of DNA that an organism possess (genotype) does not determine what bodily or behavioral form (phenotype) the organism will finally display. Academics are besides themselves over the promise of this new technology. It just seemed so cool that it simply must be good for something. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on this effort. Objectively speaking, it’s like the emperor’s new clothes.