What my bad story taught me about constructive complaints

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I was, like most science writers, appalled to learn that the plagiarist and fabricator Jonah Lehrer was paid $20,000 by the Knight Foundation this week to lecture about his plagiarism and fabrications. What a dreadful message for a foundation dedicated to promoting journalism to send to, well, journalists.

Others have written eloquently about this, and often with more personal reasons than me to be upset. But I was especially struck by a post by Kathleen Raven, in which she listed her own journalistic mistakes. Her point was to show how every one should be a learning experience, “seared into memory” — not something to be brushed aside as colour to support a career in professional redemption.

I made plenty of mistakes in my career as a science journalist at The Times, many more than I’d have liked to. There is one, though, that particularly sticks in my mind, for the incredibly constructive way in which a scientist who was justifiably irritated by it complained. Tony Weidberg, a particle physicist, approached me so constructively that I think it provides a great example of how to engage with the media to achieve better coverage of science.

I’m reproducing the passage of The Geek Manifesto in which I describe the story, and what I learned from it, here. Unfortunately, I can’t find the offending article on the web — it doesn’t seem to have been archived, though if anyone can find it I’ll gladly link to it.

Constructive Complaints

Adversarial approaches to bad science reporting are important weapons in the geek arsenal. But they shouldn’t always be the first ones we deploy. Start by attacking a journalist in abrasive fashion and he is as likely to become defensive and deaf to criticism as he is to take it on board and change his approach. Plenty of science reporters are broadly sympathetic to the aims of [Ben] Goldacre and his allies, but nonetheless brush off their views because they consider them relentlessly negative. Complain constructively, couching criticism as helpful advice, and a surprising number of hacks will listen.

Media professionals are as prone as anybody else to ‘cognitive dissonance’. This term from psychology describes the difficulty of holding two pieces of mutually incompatible information in your mind at the same time, and it is easily activated by our own errors. Most journalists like to think they are covering their beat responsibly, thoroughly and accurately. If they are then confronted with a serious error, that information can be difficult to take on board – especially if it’s implied that they have made the error because they are slipshod, conniving, venal or stupid. And dissonance is often more easily resolved by rejecting inconvenient facts than by acknowledging them.

To achieve a culture change in media attitudes to science, we must work with the grain of cognitive dissonance, rather than against it. As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.’

I can vouch for the value of Lincoln’s aphorism. Soon after I began covering science for The Times in 2001, I picked up on a story in New Scientist about the forthcoming shutdown of the Large Electron-Positron Collider at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva. The piece suggested that the Higgs boson – the so-called ‘God particle’ that is supposed to give matter its mass, and for which the accelerator was searching – was unlikely actually to exist. My story strongly implied that the search for it had been a waste of money. ‘The results of these recent experiments have convinced many of the 5,000 scientists working in the field that the whole investigation has been a wild goose chase.’

My interpretation was pretty absurd. While there were indeed physicists who thought the LEP results made it unlikely that the Higgs would be found, that hardly meant that looking for it was a waste of time and money. If anything, the non-discovery of the Higgs would be still more exciting, as it would suggest that an entirely new model of physics is required. Sometimes the null result in science is the most valuable that there is. The existence of the Higgs was in any case far from settled: the view that it doesn’t exist was, even in 2001, very much a minority one, and most physicists expect the Large Hadron Collider to find it.

That I recognized my error was largely down to an Oxford University physicist called Tony Weidberg. He would have been well within his rights to rant and rave at my sensationalist misinterpretation, but he took a different tack. In a calm and friendly fashion, he told me that I’d made some mistakes in my copy, but that wasn’t altogether rare or surprising in such a difficult and technical field. Perhaps I’d like to come up to Oxford to meet him and his colleagues, to learn a bit more about particle physics and make a few expert contacts I’d be able to call on when I next turned to the subject? It was a textbook example of how to turn media misreporting to your advantage. I don’t pretend for a moment that I’ve never made an error about particle physics since visiting Weidberg’s team. But his approach gave me a way of learning from my mistakes for which I remain very grateful.

Acknowledging an error so that it can be learned from becomes much more probable if it’s presented as the sort of mistake that a reasonable person could reasonably have made. That applies even when you don’t think the error reasonable. Had Weidberg shouted down the phone that my piece on the LEP was crap, I’d like to think that I’d have thought about his criticism and eventually accepted it, but I’m realistic enough to know that I’d probably have reacted defensively and sought to justify myself. We’d both have been worse off as a result.

Criticism is most likely to make a difference if it is framed as friendly advice – at least at first. If a journalist makes a bad mistake, you should tell them about it, but politely. If they react badly – or if they’ve a track record of misrepresentation – by all means step it up a notch. Write that vituperative blogpost. Complain. Hold them up to ridicule. But it’s worth exhausting softer tactics before taking a tougher stance.

These different responses to the media’s output, proportionately deployed, could work in concert to create a kind of informal peer-review. Once journalists begin to realize that much of what they publish will be scrutinized in public for errors of fact or interpretation, more of them can be expected to ask themselves tough questions before they write. They can learn from the methods of science: that by treating your story as a hypothesis that you must test yourself, you reduce the risk that someone else will do that for you, with potentially embarrassing consequences.

Better journalists, and more responsible media organizations, will realize that all this works ultimately to their benefit, allowing them to produce more informative and trustworthy work that remains interesting and immediate for the present readership, while potentially even attracting new audiences. Even those who take a more cynical approach, calculating that sensation sells while accuracy is of secondary importance, will know that this puts them at risk of ridicule and complaint.

Most science writers, and indeed most journalists of all types, would usually prefer to get things right. Few reporters went into journalism to systematically distort the truth: they want their work to be as accurate as the relevant format can possibly allow. To do that, journalists need the help and cooperation of scientists. Not even specialist writers can be expert in everything: they’re as good as their sources. Many welcome constructive criticism. And most would welcome a stronger culture of engagement with the media and the public at large among scientists.

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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3 Responses to What my bad story taught me about constructive complaints

  1. That’s a nice and constructive example. It makes sense to me, and I think that good science writers are open to this. I think it’s great when they update pieces or blog posts with new or modified information based on the input from the field practitioners. Those writers become the people I appreciate the most, in fact.

    It’s so frustrating though that the worst offenders–the cherry-picking, refuse-to-correct types keep doing it. These recalcitrant ones often develop a sort of bubble of fans and as far as I can tell they have no reason to do anything different. I’m sure their page views convince them that they are doing something right. But they are actually hurting the discourse. I’m stumped at what to do about that.

  2. This is very thoughtfully explained, and, as someone who’s been both interviewer and interviewee, I really appreciate your closing paragraph. In my experience, most researchers appreciate an interest in their work and are glad to talk about it (after all, if they weren’t enthusiastic about research, they probably would have chosen some other career). But if journalists don’t understand all the nuances of the research, they still have the responsibility to make sure they understand enough to be able to accurately report it.

  3. So refreshing to hear this. It’s applicable to so many fields. I often wonder what political activists are trying to achieve when they hurl rage and ridiculously exaggerated accusations at each other – do they want to persuade others to their point of view, or just vent their anger at the enemy?

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