Opinion | Science

The Trouble With Reporting on Unpublished Research

The popular science news website Live Science reported on a new study finding that self-reported cat and dog people scored differently on standard measures of personality and intelligence. The source? A conference presentation and presumably interviews with the researchers behind the study at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

The Live Science article was criticized in a post by a writer at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, who took a jab at the study’s methodology and called both the research and the article a cry for publicity. The writer describes a formula for this:

All you have to do is round up a few college students, and divide them into two categories. It might be cat people vs. dog people, or baseball vs. soccer fans, or people who prefer fish tacos vs. those who prefer chicken tacos. Then give them some tests. Claim the tests reveal intelligence, or introversion/extroversion, or whatever seems sexy and attention-getting.

Two Live Science editors respectfully and thoroughly responded to the criticisms, calling out the reviewer’s unsupported claims and lack of understanding of basic statistics.

Both sides make good points, but neither has much evidence to support them. But I think Live Science might have the upper hand in this case with the researcher’s words “on the record.”

A published, peer-reviewed paper could have solved this. Almost all rigorous science stories link back to a paper so that readers can evaluate the methods and data, and interpret the results for themselves. This becomes tricky when the peer-review process can take months and even years, and when websites such as Live Science are in the business of pushing out a lot of content under a time crunch. Thankfully publishers like the Public Library of Science (PLoS) are finding ways to speed up the publication timeline while maintaing high standards.

My first post on this blog was about this very issue. For one of my undergraduate journalism classes, we watched and responded to the classic newsroom drama Lou Grant. In an episode called “The Scoop,” one reporter is first to file a story, which turns out to be plagued by inaccuracy. The other reporter takes her time, verifies her facts, and comes in late. But she got it right.

Says the newspaper owner: “I want truth, not speed. I want good reporting, not good fiction.”

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