By Sheeva Azma
In this post, I talk about ways to find reliable, accurate science news. This post is inspired by a comment from our YouTube channel (edited for clarity):
What are some creditable sources I can utilize? If I search “science news,” barely anything real comes up. The results are so emotionally driven that it feels like a drama. Other times, the results seem credible, but then no real facts were analyzed or questions answered — there’s just perspectives and opinions. Often, I have to piece together bits and pieces from different articles. I might look up a specific term from one article or do a deep dive into a concept mentioned in an article. For example, trying to find out the biological basis of carpal tunnel syndrome took me six hours! I would get bits and pieces from the media, look up an article, and the first thing I don’t understand, I look it up. One time, a news article used two different terms to describe the same cellular function. -.-
Yikes. That’s frustrating, to say the least! I can definitely say that, as freelance science writers, we’re taught that we should not use different terminology for the same concept, as it confuses people – as described above by our commenter. Best practices in science communication dictate that one uses the same phrase to refer to a given concept; introducing new phrases just add more jargon which must be explained to the reader to avoid confusing them.
It can also be frustrating for readers when they encounter an article that discusses a complex topic without introducing or dealing with the topic fully. This requires the reader to do a lot of research. They might also get bored and become uninterested in the article because it is too difficult to get through, or resort to Google sleuthing to find their answer.
As science communicators, we have to do better. Where we can, we should endeavor to do the heavy lifting for our readers. Where that’s not possible, readers should work on developing critical thinking and analysis skills that help them tell real news from fake news, and to be better able to find the information they are seeking.
Here are three pieces of advice you can use to make sure that you are finding reliable, accurate science news and information. Feel free to chime in with your best advice in the comments, too!
1. Follow specific journalists you trust, ideally those with a science background.
On the Fancy Comma YouTube channel, we recently posted a three-part series about ways to spot — and avoid — fake news and misinformation. For one thing, it’s always important to know the biases and any agendas of the content you are reading online. You should always consider your source when reading science news articles. Look into the publication to see where they get their funding, what types of articles they write, and whether they are partisan or nonpartisan. Do your research to make sure that you are reading a legitimate publication which has a good track record of producing factual, accurate news.
Do your research to make sure that you are reading a legitimate publication which has a good track record of producing factual, accurate news.Tweet
Critical thinking and analysis is an important part of science, too, so when looking for science news, I prefer to follow journalists who have a background in science, especially those with advanced science degrees (by the way, I am also a science journalist with a science background! Read my work here). This way, I know that they not only have a detailed understanding of the scientific information, but are also familiar with the general frameworks of scientific thought. They can see through the pseudoscience and debunk scientific myths. Importantly, they are trained to think critically and question assumptions, and to not take the results of scientific studies for granted. Scientists understand that science is a process, not a path to a single result. They know that, as new information emerges, theories change and hypotheses are confirmed or refuted. They also know that scientific methods can be more important than the results you get.
I have found that scientists-turned-science-journalists are often lower profile than more established science journalists trained primarily in journalism — so underrated! I find that I prefer reading their work; science journalists with a science background are well equipped to explain science clearly and succinctly, with all of the nuance required in science reporting. I guess I was not alone in this opinion, as Ed Yong, a scientist turned science writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for his COVID-19 science reporting.
.@SheevaAzma’s favorite way to obtain accurate, high-quality reporting: Follow trusted science journalists with a science background who publish high-quality work.Tweet
My favorite tip to obtain accurate, high-quality reporting is to follow trusted science journalists who publish high-quality work. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of my favorite science journalists was Dr. Katherine Wu, who published smart, informative articles on the science of COVID-19, answering our most burning pandemic questions. For science news, you may also want to follow the work of scientists who are active on Twitter and work to explain their science to a general audience.
I prefer following the work of specific journalists over reading specific publications because while a single author tends to write in a consistent manner, it is more difficult to fact-check an entire publication. When reading, it’s always good to consider your source, though.
2. Google is your friend, but Google smartly.
You may take to Google to find more information about a given subject. Did you know you can use certain shortcuts to be able to search smarter, not harder? Use ‘search operators‘ to find information from specific sources. For example, you can use search operators to search for a given keyword, and further, to constrain your search results to only pages at the New York Times. Here’s what that might look like if you are searching for information on cancer pathology: “cancer pathology site:nytimes.com” (without quotes).
Often times, you may need to Google terms you read in an article. You can constrain your search to only contain results from the National Institutes of Health website, if you are Googling a health-related term, for instance. You’d have to use the “site” search operator again, which would look like this: “[search terms] site:nih.gov” (without quotes).
It can be tiring to Google new terms you find in an article, but remember: knowledge is power! An added benefit of your Google sleuthing is that you can write your own, more informative blog post, if you do not find any that are to your liking.
If you end up writing your own blog post due to a lack of information on the web, please let me know! Don’t forget that you can also write for us. One of the goals of our blog is to reflect on science journalism and ways science is portrayed and discussed in the media to help improve science communication.
3. Don’t discount your own knowledge.
Sometimes you may know better than the news, and the news may actually be wrong. This has happened to me many times in the pandemic, and it can be frustrating. If you’re looking up an esoteric detail in your field, you may become frustrated with the news media coverage (if it exists). The news cycle goes fast, and details and nuance can be missed to get breaking news out quickly.
If you’re looking for a scientific news detail and can’t find it, try Google sleuthing to find expert articles that may have been previously published online. If you still can’t find anything, I recommend going directly to the scientific literature to answer your questions. Here’s a primer about how to use Google Scholar to conduct a scientific literature search.
In my experience, when science news misses a crucial detail, it can go viral regardless, which makes misinformation worse. So, trust your intuitions if the news seems to contradict what you learned as a scientist, and seek to verify and fact-check. Again, you can also use your scientific powers for good and write blogs and/or social media content to add the relevant details (again, please get in touch if you end up doing this, and consider writing for us!).
Science News Literacy in a Post-Pandemic World
Of course, the above is not an exhaustive list of ways to vet your sources, and it’s always important to know what you’re reading. Science communicators will be unpacking the lessons we learned from COVID-19 science reporting in the pandemic for years to come. If you have thoughts on science journalism and/or science communication in the pandemic, feel free to pitch us.