The past few months the press has reported many stories about grand scientific discoveries. For example, the discovery of the lair of the Kraken, a pre-historic monster that ate dinosaurs for fun (see Lair of Ancient ‘Kraken’ Sea Monster Possibly Discovered – Yahoo! News and The Giant, Prehistoric Squid That Ate Common Sense | Wired Science | Wired.com). There was also extensive coverage of a study that said that the speed of light can be broken and hence Einstein’s theory of special relativity was flawed (read more at Speed of light may have been broken – Q&A – Telegraph).
In hindsight, it seems that the reporting of these scientific discoveries was a little pre-mature. In the zest to get the next big story, non-reviewed working papers get cited, data gets mis-represented, findings get mis-quoted, and scientific ethics ignored. These problems are more prevalent in some parts of the world.
Everyone has an example of the scientific ignorance of the press, but researchers in Britain probably have more than most. With stories ranging from ludicrous (wind turbine attacked by aliens) to downright irresponsible (promoting the link between childhood vaccinations and autism), the fourth estate in the United Kingdom has hardly covered itself in glory when it comes to science and scientific issues. Other countries have similar grievances, of course — particularly the United States, where right-wing talk radio and cable television regularly air anti-science views on everything from global warming to creationism. Stem-cell scientists in Germany and transgenic-crop researchers in France have also been assailed by journalism out of step with the scientific evidence that it claims to examine.
In Britain, an inquiry into the standards and ethics of the press has asked the scientific community to provide support for the thesis that press coverage that does not apply the scientific method is harmful to science. While this is an interesting debate in itself, it begs us to ask the larger question – is press coverage good for science? It also raises questions on if scientists should be responsible for and trained in scientific journalism or if journalists should be trained in the scientific method. While several points can be made in support or opposition to this discussion, many proponents from both sides may agree that good, responsible press coverage is critical for good science. If not, then why do many researchers cite ‘media coverage’ on their resumes?