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How to critically evaluate scientific claims before pursuing a story

Nieman Lab: “Our inboxes are full of them — press releases, pitches, and other media calling some scientific event “a breakthrough,” “a game-changer,” or “a paradigm-shifter.” Scientists, investors, and analysts flood our Twitter feeds, cheerleading a preprint or singing some company’s praises, even when there is little to no data to back up those claims. Figuring out whether something is newsworthy can be hard. But, as science journalists, we need to examine these statements, and decide: Is this worth covering? If so, how do we do so objectively, without accidentally becoming a mouthpiece for hyperbolic claims? What’s at stake is significant. Information comes at us like a fire hose on full blast, and social media algorithms have made it easy for lies to spread faster than truth. For example, antithetical claims have continued to try and sow doubt around the causes of climate change. And misinformation problems have only worsened during the pandemic: In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll on false statements about Covid-19 vaccines, researchers found that 78% of people either believed or weren’t sure about at least one of the claims. For journalists on tight deadlines, sifting fact from fiction can sometimes feel impossible. But coverage lends credibility, which matters immensely to readers. Some of the things we write can profoundly affect people’s actions, especially in health and medicine, says Rosie Mestel, the executive editor of Knowable Magazine. “There are a lot of people who are desperate and very sick,” she says, “and you have to be very, very careful that you’re not going to be misleading people and overplaying things.”

To cut through the murkiness and hype, science journalists need to vet the information and sources they come across and be on the lookout for red flags. Also essential is understanding our own biases — what we wish to be true, and how that plays into our decision making. Here, both skepticism and self-awareness can be key. Journalists have the power to tell or not tell a story—and how we dissect claims plays into that power, says Ashley Smart, a physics journalist who is the associate director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and a senior editor at Undark. “We owe it to our readers and to the general public, and even to our sources, to be thoughtful in what we decide to cover, and to make sure that it’s worthy of the platform that we’re giving it,” Smart says…”

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