Toolkit – for journalists

Toolkit homeResources for science journalism

  • Free online resources teach you how to report on science
    These six free modules are recommended for working journalists. Learn about and then practise reporting on scientific topics in any media.
    scijourno.com.au
  • Improve your science literacy and communication skills
    Interactive online sessions are available for journalists to improve their understanding of science and how to communicate science-related topics to a general audience.
    Subscribe to these online briefings and other media alerts: www.scimex.org  
    More information about the online sessions: www.smc.org.au/for-media/journalist_services
  • Tips on how to report on science accurately
    Information on creating a balanced argument, knowing when research is ready to be talked about, how to understand studies and trials, and communicating statistics and risk accurately.
    www.smc.org.au/for-media/tips-on-reporting-science
  • Research, data results
    Find information on science, science activities and attitudes to science with this compilation of data from peer-reviewed literature, reports, census polls and attitudinal surveys.
    www.sciencengage.com.au
  • Access images, footage and graphics for breaking news
    Science Media Exchange (Scimex) Multimedia Hub provides an online space for posting and sharing science-related visual material to enhance the messages of scientists, science communicators and journalists.
    www.scimex.org/multimedia-hub

Tips on talking to scientists

  • While one particular scientist might not know the answer to your question, they might know someone who does, so ask if they can recommend someone else to talk to.
  • Scientists are very busy, but between experiments and writing up reports they’re often happy to talk to media if the interview can be organised ahead of time.
  • An anecdote makes a story relatable to the audience, particularly in medical stories. But does it represent the normal experience, or is this an unusual case? Make sure the audience is aware of this.

If you’re looking for an expert on a particular topic, keep an eye out for any international conferences that are happening in Australia. These have leading thinkers and great speakers who are often available for interview.

Case studies: what does good and bad science journalism look like?

Accurate and balanced reporting of science in the media is hugely important in ensuring that the public can make an informed decision about a given topic.

What made The Checkout’s ‘Superfoods’ a finalist for the $10,000 Eureka Prize for Science Journalism?

maxresdefaultThe Checkout dissected the science behind three different superfoods – goji berries, chia seeds and Acai berries – and found that, in fact, there wasn’t much science at all.
In this episode, the reporter:

  • looked at the facts behind the claims about each of the superfoods, how they became well known and who endorsed them (‘doctors’ with PhDs from unaccredited dodgy institutes, Oprah, supermodels)
  • read the scientific papers that the companies used to back up their claims (many of which were sponsored by the companies selling the product being tested), and looked into other more reputable studies from credible institutes to compare the facts
  • asked peer-reviewed experts from reputable organisations—such as Cancer Council NSW, University of Sydney, Oxford University—for their opinions
  • used a fun celebrity angle, stating that supermodel Jennifer Hawkins, one of the celebrities who endorses chia seeds, “definitely looks like a woman with a soothed colon”.

Watch the episode here.

Why did Catalyst’s ‘Heart of the matter’ end up on Media Watch?

1341_catalystThis two-part story on ABC’s Catalyst, on the ‘overuse’ and inappropriate use of cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins, led to more than 60,000 Australians cutting back on their cholesterol medication in the months following the story. University of Sydney researchers estimated at the time that this could result in “between 1,522 and 2,900 preventable, and potentially fatal, heart attacks and strokes”.

Media Watch featured this story, stating that:

  • the arguments were unbalanced – of the 10 people interviewed, eight shared the same opinion that lowering cholesterol doesn’t prevent heart disease. The other two, who were medical doctors that strongly supported the use of statins, were only given four minutes of air time in the hour-long program.
  • the arguments were biased – several of the people interviewed had conflicts of interest (such as writing the book: The Great Cholesterol Myth—why lowering your cholesterol won’t prevent heart disease and the statin-free plan that will) that weren’t relayed to the audience.
  • there may have been a vested interested that should have been outlined to the audience.

One discovery, two different media treatments

parviceps-768x268Here is an example a story that saw two very different outcomes from the same scientific paper, and another story of biased and inaccurate journalism.

Earlier in 2016, a paper in Nature announced the discovery of a carnivorous marine reptile with some surprising features, which suggested rapid evolution of early marine reptile species. The story was covered by two different journalists.

This story in the Guardian – New fossil find points to rapid evolution of marine reptiles after mass extinction – has an accurate headline, links to the original scientific paper, puts the study into context, and includes quotes from actual scientists.

However, another story from the University Herald – Newly Discovered Dinosaur Fossil Challenges Darwin’s Theory of Evolution; Marine Reptiles Evolved More Quickly – sensationalises the science with a controversial and technically incorrect headline, includes incorrect facts (250 years instead of 247 million years), and quotes other media outlets rather than actual scientists. It creates a controversial angle on a fairly straightforward scientific paper.

Read more about this case study on the Neurologica blog.