A storytelling approach to science can make for bad journalism, according to a Myles Allen opinion piece that ran last month in The Guardian (UK). Writing about the theft and publication of emails from climate change researchers at the University of East Anglia, Allen (who is head of the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford) criticizes the media’s response to Climategate, writing, “The bottom line is that journalism deals not in facts, but in ‘narratives.’”
While Allen is partly talking about narratives in the meta sense, he links his concerns to the problematic approach of stories focusing on individuals rather than the science involved.
“Journalists, who always find numbers irritating, are revelling [sic] in the fact that they are back in the driving seat. By making the story about the individual scientists, rather than scientific results, they can go back to reporting on the story as they see fit without being constrained by scientific evidence.”
The goal of good narrative reporting, of course, is to use characters and storytelling techniques to explain complicated events and ideas to readers. And complex science stories may be particularly susceptible to classic tropes—witness Michael White’s stinging 2008 indictment, “Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog.”
But Charles Petit, who runs the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology isn’t buying that the reporting on the theft of the emails is inherently flawed. “Reporters have covered the science extensively,” Petit says. “When it comes up in these accounts, it is explained that the predominant view is that when you parse these emails, there’s no real conspiracy.”
As far as using people-centered and narrative approaches to reporting science stories, Petit suggests there are risks and benefits. The upside? By injecting plot points, surprise, and discovery, Petit says, “You get more readers. You engage people.” The downside? The focus on a single person or a point in time limits the reporter to one story among many. As a result, says Petit:
“You may lose track of the underlying process of science and the way that it works, which is to be driven by doubt rather than faith. Science is a strange institution… its best practitioners are the ones who are least likely to tell you they’re absolutely sure of anything. That doesn’t always work when you’re trying to tell a story.”
But in the end, Petit, who has been reporting on science for four decades, suggests,
“The problem is not with narrative reporting. The problem is that sometimes writers don’t approach the story skillfully enough, and more that our educational institutions don’t inform the public about how science really works. And half the reporters expected to cover science haven’t had real classes to learn it either.”
Not exactly comforting thoughts, but helpful to keep in mind when pondering how to craft scientific narratives that make for good stories without misleading readers.