If you’ve not been linked to it already, you should definitely go and read this: “This is a news website article about a scientific paper“. It’s a real zinger; here’s the opening:
In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.
In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.
If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.
This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like “the scientists say” to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.
Ouch; it hurts because it’s true. The Grauniad is doing its best to rise above the clichés portrayed therein (as are a few other mainstream news venues), but there’s always one factor that tends to be overlooked in discussions of what makes for responsible good-quality science reporting… namely that the market for it is vanishingly small by comparison to sensationalist “OMG New Pill Cures Cancer, Expels Illegal Immigrants and Boosts House Prices!!!1” hucksterism.
The root cause of that, one assumes, is that a large percentage of the population is functionally illiterate in scientific terms. (Repeat after me: “correlation is not causation”…) Being realistic about it, in the current economic climate newspapers and websites will inevitably publish whatever pulls in traffic to eyeball the ads they run… and that’s the one major stumbling point for the no-paywall model of online publishing (a matter that is rather closer to my heart than I’d like right now, as shall be revealed later this week).