While I put way too much effort into becoming a journalist to share all of our secrets with you, I do have a few odds and ends from my experiences that the general public (or the five people who manage to find this blog) might be interested to know. 1. Headlines: The people who write the stories don't always write the headlines. Writing a simple, eye-catching headline is a special skill (one that I find embarrassingly difficult) and sometimes it takes some outside help to get it right. A consequence of this collaboration is that, on occasion, the headline doesn't really represent the story. Please keep this in mind next time you rip a writer apart in the comments for a misleading hed. (Still point out the deception by all means, just temper the personal attack.)2. For Interviewees: The relationship between a writer and their sources is vital to the writer's survival. Yet somehow, it feels much scarier being a source. If you ever find yourself in this position, there are a few things that I think it would be good for you to know.
3. Sex Ratio: SHERP (my grad program) has had 31 classes. The gender ratio is about 75% women. While science journalism generally caters to a male audience, it is a profession chock-full of the opposite sex.4. Quoting versus Paraphrasing: In journalism (again, not press releases), if there are quotation marks around a phrase or sentence, it should be a quotation. In some cases, journalists will cut out um's, uh's, like's, y'know's, and other filler words and stutters but there should not be any rearranging or word replacement. If a writer feels the need to make those kinds of alterations, they should take the quotation marks away. (It's good to note here that Q&A's, which often leave off the quotation marks, are generally paraphrased.5. Magazine versus Newspaper Scheduling: How many times have you picked up a science magazine and read stories you already knew about? Probably too often. The problem here is that stories for monthly magazines are usually pitched about half a year before they appear on newsstands. It takes that long to check the viability of the story, interview sources, and then write, edit, copy edit, fact check, proof-read, and print it. Because of their fast turnaround, newspapers are not always fact-checked. Neither are most books (think James Frey). I don't know the reason for that one...
- If a writer is going to grant a source anonymity, it has to be for a very good reason. You can ask for it, but it (generally) is hard to get.
- Sources are not friends. This can be a difficult rule to keep but it must be done so that a journalist can tell the story in a fair and professional way. (On the rare occasion that sources are someone near and/or dear, a journalist should disclose that.)
- Journalists do not like (and are sometimes prevented from) giving quote approval. This isn't -- or shouldn't be -- because we want to make people look bad. It's because sources should not have the power to alter the story. In some cases journalists will allow their sources to check their quotes for factual accuracy but they should make it clear that the source has no power to actually change anything. (FYI: Press officers -- the people who write press releases -- are a different story.)
- Stories are killed every day in all steps of the process. Until you see the story in print, there is no assurance that it worked out. So, if you are super excited to show up in a future piece, be aware that it is not yet a sure thing. (In the case of some internet stories, it may even disappear after it's been published.)
The other day someone recommended that I write about the connection between iced tea and kidney stones. These painful deposits of minerals and salt that form in the urinary tract are of particular interest to me because I am the daughter of a 10-time kidney stone
sufferer. As soon as I started Googling about for more information on my possible story, I saw that my curiosity had company. Articles all over the web were citing a new study that said iced tea drinkers are at an increased risk for this painful ailment.
Unfortunately, that study everyone was so hyped about doesn't exist.
It all started with a Loyola University
news release. In it Dr. John Milner, a urologist and an assistant professor in Department of Urology at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, warns that iced tea contains high levels of oxalate* (a chemical known to cause calcium stones, which are the most common type of kidney stone) and that, therefore, drinking a lot of iced tea might increase an individual's risk of developing kidney stones. (In case you're wondering: Dr. Milner went on to say in the release that hot tea -- which also contains oxalate -- is less of a concern merely because people in the U.S. don't consume as much of it as they do its iced counterpart.)
All together the information in the release was pretty interesting stuff and I actually learned a lot from it. What I didn't learn was why Loyola University wrote it. So I did what I would think most journalists would do and I called the press office (the phone number for which was conveniently located at the top of the news release). I spoke with one of the media relations people and asked whether there was a study attached to this release or if it was just a helpful tip. I was told it was the latter and we said our goodbyes. That call of less than 2 minutes killed my story and gave life to this blog post.
As a reader of science journalism you deserve to know that it is (regrettably) common for reporters to rewrite press releases without doing any additional reporting. Sometimes it's as blatant as cut-and-paste, other times it's more subtle, like using a expert's quotation** from a press release while neglecting to mention that you never actually spoke with the expert.*** These things are frowned upon by many journalists but seem to survive thanks to the high demand for quick turnarounds in science news. But are journalists really earning their keep if they are just copying another person's work?
What's worse about the particular case I've outlined here is that it wasn't just deception, it was a lie (albeit probably an unintentional one). Although there has been research
questioning the link between kidney stones and iced tea in the past, the science hasn't been conclusive and there was no new study about this topic. And yet, this place
and this place
and this place
said there was. Maybe they read something I didn't...or maybe I just spent an extra two minutes on the phone.
You may be shocked by this fact fabrication but it's not uncommon. When deadlines are flying by and the pressure to produce is at full force, accidents are bound to happen. In other words: don't make the writers of the articles I've cited here into scapegoats, look at the bigger picture.
Press release dependence isn't going anywhere, neither is it's instigator, publishing pressure. So long as they exist, mistakes (like made up studies) will happen. That doesn't mean we can't do something about it. As a journalist I can make sure I don't end up having a PR person ghostwrite for me. As a reader, you can protect yourself from ramshackle reporting. Here's how:
- Look up the studies you read about in the scientific literature. (I know, when pigs fly.)
- Read other articles about the studies. Do they have conflicting facts? Do they have disturbingly identical facts? Yes to this second question means the writers just cut-and-pasted the press release (or that it's a syndicated piece from the same writer, which is perfectly acceptable -- don't go crazy until you compare the bylines).
- If you're reading an article all about one study: Does the article tell you anything about the study besides the fact that it exists? (For example: Does it say who the participants were, how many people were involved, what happened during the study?) If the article you are reading is about one single study, it makes sense that the writer would include the most basic facts about that study. If these aren't present you might be looking at another case of press release = study.
I don't like calling out other journalists and I don't intend to make a habit of it but saying there is a study when there isn't is a BIG deal. Hopefully these writers will present me with some study I overlooked and I can just be ashamed that I've been a big jerk. If not -- and that scenario does seem unlikely -- I can at least pretend that someone will learn something from this post and that journalism will be a little better for it.*Oxalate can also be found in spinach, nuts, chocolate, and many other foods and drinks.
**If you want to all proper about it: "Quote" is a verb, "quotation" is a noun. Mind blown? Courtesy of my UCSD writing lecturer, Dr. Madeleine Picciotto.
***If a journalist does use a canned quote (one from a press release), they should say it. Ex: "I can't believe this blog post is ridiculous enough to have footnotes," said Dr. Scienceperson in a press release.
[Author note from 8/28/2012: Some readers have noted a couple of grammar errors in this piece which I have happily fixed. I mistakenly used a "your" where a "you're" should have been and "altogether" instead of "all together." Thanks for looking out and I apologize to all you grammar lovers out there.]
Since you are considerate enough to be reading my blog, I'll explain the title to you.
If you're not a journalist, you should know that "TK" means "to come" in journalist jargon. We write this in our drafts as a placeholder for something that we are expecting -- or delusionally determined -- to have in later versions of our story.
An example might be: [TK: quote from Prof. Brown explaining how he feels about this blog.]
I've been told that the misspelling stems from old editing practices. It is said that journalists wanted to make sure that all of the TK's would be removed from their stories before they went to print, so they spelled it "tokum" in order to catch the eye of those human spellcheckers commonly known as editors. (Not that editors are merely human spellcheckers.)
For those of you who have yet to catch the wordplay, "TK" are also my initials.
See what I did there now? Yeah, I'm pretty impressed with myself too.