3 Questions with Paul Raeburn
How the KSJ Tracker raises the bar for science media
"Our goal is to provide an informal peer review of science reporting,
which we hope will help improve science coverage across the board."
— Paul Raeburn, Chief Media Critic, MIT KSJ Tracker
Each year, the MIT Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) program hosts 12 to 15 esteemed science journalists from around the world to spend a fellowship year at MIT, honing their reporting skills while working alongside scientists and researchers. In 2006, the KSJ program established the KSJ Tracker as part of its program.
The Tracker publishes reviews and critiques of science articles to help educate the public about quality science journalism reporting, while simultaneously elevating the reporting bar for science journalists. SHASS Communications recently spoke with Paul Raeburn, MIT Physics SB ’72, and the KSJ Tracker’s Chief Media Critic, about the goals of the Tracker and the most prevalent issues in science reporting today.
What is the importance of the KSJ Tracker?
The MIT KSJ Tracker is the only news website devoted solely to analyzing and reporting on the coverage of science in news stories. We highlight examples of good science reporting, and also point out stories whose flaws render them misleading, wrong, or harmful. We think this is a valuable service for the public at large, and also for journalists — and especially for MIT, because its scientists and engineers are so often in the news themselves.
Our goal is to provide a kind of informal peer review of science reporting, which we hope will improve science coverage across the board — in newspapers and magazines, online, and on radio and television. We also hope that readers will come to understand more and more about how science information is communicated to the public, and how that process can sometimes go wrong. We hope that journalists will be encouraged to think more about what they do; and that members of the MIT community will find it a useful resource when they have occasion to engage with the press.
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What are some problematic issues you’ve observed in science journalism?
Many science journalists — those who specialize in coverage of science, engineering, and medicine — are well trained and generally do a good job. But even the best journalists will occasionally make a mistake or miss the significance of a story.
The larger problem involves journalists who do not specialize in science writing or reporting, and who can thus be more easily misled by a source. Sometimes it’s a question of sources who are deliberately misleading — corporations that are promoting a product, for example, or political groups distorting science to support a political position. But even when sources are acting in good faith, inexperienced science journalists can fail to understand what they are told, which is compounded when they are too embarrassed to admit they don’t understand.
It’s also common to have a reporter who is working hard on a story sent in the wrong direction by an editor who fails to understand the story. One current example is an editor who might make reporters obtain comments from climate-change deniers who don’t actually have credentials and expertise in climate change science.
One KSJ post dealt with a story in The New York Times that claimed a rare jellyfish held the key to immortality. Seriously! Alas, the jellyfish was not immortal. That’s what we at the Tracker would call a rather important problem with the story: the fundamental basis of the story was nonsense!
What are the most common observations made by the reviewers?
In the case of medical stories, for example, we find many are quick to call something a “cure” or a “breakthrough,” when in reality they might be talking about incremental advances. Stories on such issues as climate change, evolution, and stem cells often mistakenly describe people as “experts” when, in fact, they have no expertise in the issue at hand. I’m sure many of our scientists and engineers at MIT have experienced these problems when dealing with the press, and know exactly what I’m talking about.
But we’re also very interested in highlighting stories that are done well. We think that’s a great incentive to encourage reporters to do their best.
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Photograph, courtesy of Paul Raeburn