When journalists cover newly published peer-reviewed studies, they will commonly reach out to one or more other scientists who are active in that field of research to provide comments. They do this because those experts may caution against accepting a study’s conclusions as certain, or they may provide valuable context that helps readers better understand how the study fits into the scientific “big picture”.
But there’s another type of story that journalists tend to approach differently—the interview. Rather than covering a new piece of research, these stories use a Q&A format to explore the views of some (typically well-known) individual scientist on some topic. Since the point of these stories is to ask this scientist what they think, there may be no effort to consult other experts for context or fact-checking.
We have analyzed two articles in the last few months that published inaccurate claims about climate science without correction or challenge because of the interview format.
The first was an interview with sea ice researcher Peter Wadhams in which he claimed that Arctic sea ice could reach “ice free” conditions within the next two years—an opinion he has expressed repeatedly that is not supported by science or the rest of the scientific community. An article in The Telegraph we discussed in October illustrates the way this risks science’s perceived credibility. It ran with the headline “Experts said Arctic sea ice would melt entirely by September 2016—they were wrong”. That gives the impression that “sea ice experts” can’t be trusted when it comes to the future decline of Arctic sea ice, even though the article was actually talking about just two specific people.
The second interview, in The Guardian, involved James Lovelock, who made a number of incorrect statements about climate science, discounting the scientific consensus on (and projections of) climate change.
Can journalists use the Q&A format without publishing information that is inaccurate or misleads readers? To explore this question from the perspectives of both scientists and science journalists, we asked several of each about the risks inherent to the interview format and how to avoid problems. Here are the main things we learned.
Careful consideration should go into the choice of who is interviewed and what they are interviewed about.
A Q&A article amplifies the voice of a single scientist with the expectation that this individual’s thoughts are especially interesting, important, or insightful for readers. The journalist actively chooses that individual, as well as the questions to be asked. That makes it the journalist’s responsibility to choose a topic and interviewee that will result in an informative and valuable article.
Interviewing a scientist about opinions that are known not to reflect the evidence and the judgments of the scientific community creates the need to take steps to avoid publishing a misleading article. At the very least, readers should be aware that this opinion is just an opinion. “When interviewing scientists, journalists need to make it clear to readers whether the resulting article is based on opinion or science. It is not sufficient to assume that an interview with an individual scientist will result in a science-based article,” Rice University Postdoctoral Researcher Lauren Simkins said.
Even where there are multiple legitimate hypotheses in the scientific community on some uncertain research topic, the interview format is a poor way to explore this. New York University Professor of Science Journalism Dan Fagin told us,
“The best alternative for covering disputed science is still the multi-source story, in which a range of independent experts are consulted, and in which the reporter chooses her language carefully to make clear where the areas of disagreement are, and where the weight of the evidence lies on disputed points.”
Journalists should fact-check interviewees to avoid publishing misleading information.
If an interviewee does make claims that may misrepresent research on the topic, journalists should find a way to provide a fact check for the reader. University of California Berkeley Research Scientist Zeke Hausfather commented,
“Once the person being interviewed makes a factual assertion regarding science, it’s incumbent on the journalist doing the interview to fact-check it at least to the extent that they would if they were covering, say, a new paper.”
David Corcoran, Associate Director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program, told us,
“In a straight transcribed Q&A, as with Wadhams, I think the journalist has an obligation to ask more challenging questions and to sound a skeptical note in the introduction.”
One person’s views might not be representative of the state of science.
One obvious way for a Q&A article to confuse readers is to give a fringe opinion the appearance of consensus support. Princeton University Associate Research Scholar Alexis Berg put it this way:
“First, the simple fact that somebody’s opinion is printed in the news inherently gives it equal weight to the other opinions expressed, even if the latter emanate from a much larger group—the so-called ‘he says they say’ bias that climate “skeptics” have been taking advantage of for years. Secondly, it’s all too easy for the public to conflate ‘a scientist’, or ‘some scientists’, and ‘scientists.’”
Climate Central Senior Writer Michael Lemonick concurred.
“Non-expert readers see the word ‘scientist,’ and some sort of legitimate affiliation or credential, and assume that what follows is inside the scientific mainstream. That’s misleading, and therefore journalistically irresponsible. It’s like letting Donald Trump make some wacky assertion without challenge, or, more to the point, like indulging in ‘false balance’ in a conventional story about climate change—that is, presenting an opposing opinion about the reality of anthropogenic climate change even though the vast majority of climate scientists accept that reality.”
In climate science, the IPCC reports are a good resource for putting a claim in the context of our best scientific understanding. A comment from an expert in the field can also provide that context, but there is still a danger of false balance if readers perceive a simple disagreement between two experts.
The problem, then, with the interview format is that it may not serve the reader. Readers should not be expected to know that the interviewee’s opinions are outside the scientific mainstream, or to be skeptical of a quoted expert’s assertion of fact. Journalists have options at every step of the article-writing process that can help their readers.
An interview with a famous scientist may seem like an easier story to write than a standard reported story, but it may actually be much more challenging to do well. Nonetheless, journalists have an obligation to tackle those challenges—good science journalism should always leave readers better informed, not confused.
Here are more details from each of the scientists and journalists we asked to comment on the Q&A format in science reporting.
Zeke Hausfather, Director of Climate and Energy, The Breakthrough Institute:
It’s a tricky question, as part of the idea of interviews is to ask the person you are interviewing about their thoughts and views. However, when you interview a scientist there is the risk that speculation or conjecture on their part in the context of the interview will be interpreted as an evidence-based conclusion by the readers.
It’s one thing if the interview is about a story—how research was done, what interesting thing happened along the way, etc. But once the person being interviewed makes a factual assertion regarding science, it’s incumbent on the journalist doing the interview to fact check it at least to the extent that they would if they were covering, say, a new paper. Scientists are human, and have strong opinions on issues. Some of these are well grounded in research (e.g. when you are interviewing a scientist about something they published), while others (particularly outside their field of speciality) are often less reliable. No scientist, no matter how accomplished, is immune to having the occasional bizarre or poorly founded opinion, as the concept of Nobel Disease so aptly demonstrates.
Similarly, many researchers have their own pet theories that may be a bit outside the mainstream of their field. While these theories are not automatically incorrect, they should not be presented without reference to the prevailing view (e.g. in Wadham’s case).
Alexis Berg, Research Associate, Harvard University:
I think it depends on what the interview is about. If the questions are about “what do we know about this?”, and the interviewee explains what the scientific community knows, what the uncertainties are, etc., then that’s most likely fine—in other words, if the scientist is asked to act like a spokesperson for the scientific community. On the other hand, if the interviewee is being asked about her/his own views about a particular issue, then there is more risk that the reply could be misleading to readers. The risk is all the more acute if the interviewee is clearly outside the mainstream on the issue, as was the case with the Peter Wadhams interview.
So the main risk, in my view, is that the opinion of one becomes the opinion of all in the eye of the public. I think this risk is also compounded by two factors: First, the simple fact that somebody’s opinion is printed in the news inherently gives it equal weight to the other opinions expressed, even if the latter emanate from a much larger group—the so-called “he says they say” bias that climate skeptics have been taking advantage of for years. Secondly, it’s all too easy for the public to conflate “a scientist”, or “some scientists”, and “scientists”.
Finally, I also think that the interview of a single well-known scientist, in general, carries the risk to comfort the myth that people kind of buy into too much (that is just my impression) that science is an individual effort done by lone-wolf, genius scientists—the Einstein myth, if you will. I think of science, particularly on global issues like climate change, more as something like a community effort. It is Big Science: big equipments (satellites, supercomputers, million-line-long climate model codes), big data (petabytes of observations and model outputs), big teams, etc. No lone scientist does it all by themselves. Generally, accepted understanding on any topic emerges from the work of hundreds or thousands of people. I understand the tendency for journalists to gravitate towards a few major figures in any field, but I wish the reporting on science would not reinforce that “lone scientist” myth.
Lauren Simkins, Assistant Professor, University of Virginia:
Science is meant to be challenged and scrutinized. Scientists are trained as skeptics, but universally driven by objective observations. It is through those observations that we formulate interpretations and place our findings into a broader context or relevance. If not backed by observations, the strength and reliability of interpretations is diminished. Similarly, interpretations are weak if those reporting science do not make the founding observations and data clear and accessible to readers. The person reporting information should be responsible for fact-checking claims made by others, whether by politicians or well-known scientists.
When interviewing scientists, journalists need to make it clear to readers whether the resulting article is based on opinion or science. It is not sufficient to assume that an interview with an individual scientist will result in a science-based article. Does the scientist use biased, polarizing and alarmist language? If so, this could be a first-order approach, for a non-specialist in climate science, to judge the reliability of the claims and prompt journalists to ask for or independently seek scientific references and data that can assess the validity of those claims. Journalists could ask other climate scientists, who do similar research, to answer the same questions and perhaps include their responses in the published article.
Dan Fagin, Professor of Science Journalism, New York University:
Q&A is a poor way to cover unsettled science. It should be selected only when there is general agreement on the evidence, or if both the interviewer and interviewee are aware of and freely acknowledge areas where there is no consensus, and describe credible contrasting viewpoints where they exist. A well-informed questioner can pull this off, but it’s not easy. The best alternative for covering disputed science is still the multi-source story, in which a range of independent experts are consulted, and in which the reporter chooses her language carefully to make clear where the areas of disagreement are, and where the weight of the evidence lies on disputed points.
David Corcoran, Associate Director, MIT Knight Science Journalism Program:
In a straight transcribed Q&A, as with Wadhams, I think the journalist has an obligation to ask more challenging questions and to sound a skeptical note in the introduction (preferably by including at least one dissenting voice).
I’m much less troubled by the Lovelock piece, which embeds the interview within a critical essay whose author clearly understands the subject and can return her interviewee’s tricky groundstrokes.
Michael Lemonick, Senior Writer, Climate Central:
Yes, I think this [Q&A format] is problematic. Non-expert readers see the word “scientist,” and some sort of legitimate affiliation or credential, and assume that what follows is inside the scientific mainstream. That’s misleading, and therefore journalistically irresponsible. It’s like letting Donald Trump make some wacky assertion without challenge, or, more to the point, like indulging in “false balance” in a conventional story about climate change—that is, presenting an opposing opinion about the reality of anthropogenic climate change even though the vast majority of climate scientists accept that reality.
I think that, at the very least, a journalist who conducts and posts one of these interviews must post a disclaimer explaining that what follows is significantly out of the mainstream—either more alarmist or more dismissive than most climate scientists.