02 January 2005

a better letter to the public editor

This one, titled "Writing columns about press releases," actually got a "maybe we'll use this" response.

Dear Public Editor,

When writing science columns, what is your policy on when to use press releases rather than preprints or published papers? In particular, this Oct 19 article [Danger From Depleted Uranium Is Found Low in Pentagon Study] is about a Pentagon study on depleted uranium, and appears to be based entirely on the Pentagon press release, since according to the article, the paper hasn't yet even been submitted for publication.

While I'm not familiar with all the background here, I have some obvious concerns with this practice of reporting based on a press release rather than an actual study. It is impossible to check the claimed results, let alone get reactions from other scientists. For example, the above article contains the line "opponents of using depleted uranium, who have not yet seen the study, were skeptical of the findings." This is especially problematic if the NYT never follows up with a longer and more detailed article once the actual study emerges.

Also, it becomes more difficult to decide what to report on. The article about the Pentagon study mentions that it is "a five-year, $6 million study," but this is a terrible way of connoting credibility. If you had the actual results you could tell how statistically significant they were, and if the paper had been published or presented at a conference, you could tell if its methods or analysis had been usefully critiqued by other scientists. Making editorial decisions based on press releases alone risks reducing journalists to mouthpieces of competing PR departments.

Finally, this practice risks doing a disservice to science by encouraging sloppy science that bypasses the normal peer review mechanisms. As a scientist in a trendy new field (quantum computing), I often see press releases for weak and over-hyped results. We wouldn't do this if you didn't encourage us.

I understand that some science reporting might be time sensitive. And most science reporters might not be qualified to evaluate the actual scientific papers. But you still might wait until the paper is published (or at least posted on a website or preprint server) so that you can get opinions of qualified and independent scientists.

I don't have many more examples on hand about articles based on press releases, so if I'm mistaken about how common this is, then I'm sorry for the criticism. But if the practice is as frequent as it seems, then maybe a review of your science writing guidelines would be in order.


aram harrow

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