It is okay for scientists but not politicians to vet reporter’s copy

Friday September 29 2017

A pregnant woman gets an ultrasound at the maternity of the Guatemalan Social Security Institute in Guatemala City on February 2, 2016.

A pregnant woman gets an ultrasound at the maternity of the Guatemalan Social Security Institute in Guatemala City on February 2, 2016. Guatemala increased the monitoring of pregnant women because of the risk of infection by Zika virus. PHOTO | JOHAN ORDONEZ | AFP 

By PETER MWAURA
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The most common request reporters receive from news sources, particularly politicians, is: “Let me see your story before it’s published.”

In journalism, a story before it’s published is called “copy”. Checking copy is the work of editors, not news sources. The reason they ask to look it over is to censor what they don’t like. No reporter worth his salt turns over his copy to a news source.

But exceptions can be made for scientists and certain categories of expert sources, because they can be helpful allies of a reporter. Scientists, in particular, can help the reporter to unpack a complex research study or experiment to make it understandable, meaningful and useful to readers.

This was the case in the story, Study: Nairobi has the highest number of children with rickets, which I commented on on September 15 (Reporting science is critical but must be done with strict fidelity).

ACCURATE STORY

Nation reporter Eunice Kilonzo relied on a research paper to write the story but found it necessary to seek the assistance of the scientists who authored the report. She wanted certain things clarified and amplified to make sure she conveyed to her readers a meaningful and accurate story about rickets in Kenya.

Dr Mike English, one of the authors, looked over her copy and offered helpful and insightful clarification.

Failure to ask a scientist to look over copy can be ruinous — as was the case with another Nation story. Dr Bob Achila, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, presented a paper on whether it’s safe to deliver a baby vaginally if one had given birth through caesarean section. He told other doctors in a symposium that, in appropriate cases, virginal birth is safe for such mothers.

The Nation reporter, without interviewing Dr Achila for clarification, filed a story that said it is possible to give birth vaginally “regardless of why you had a caesarean section and how many you have had”.

FALSE INFORMATION

What Dr Achila had actually spelt out was that vaginal birth after previous CS is safe if certain steps are followed and prospects for its safety assessed and monitored.

The doctor was — justifiably — greatly concerned as he was quoted on views he did not hold nor support and that the false information “could lead to serious harm or even death if pregnant women were to follow the false claims”.

Science can be an arcane subject. Reporters are dependent on scientists willing to look over their copy. Dealing with scientists is not like dealing with politicians, who are often interested in scoring political points. Scientists are interested in furthering knowledge, even as they promote their careers.

Both reporter and scientist are concerned with dissemination of information. The two can collaborate in getting out the science story. Indeed, no science reporter can afford not to have a working relationship with scientists.

STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE

However, this relationship is not carte blanche: A reporter must always be on the lookout for flaws and weaknesses in a scientist’s research design and methodology. He should question whether the scientist’s samples were large enough to draw conclusions from.

He should question the statistical significances and whether the results back up the researcher’s conclusions. He should also check whether the research was peer-reviewed, published in a quality journal or presented at a conference.

Not every research study or experiment is worth reporting as reliable science news. A classic example is Kemron — the 1991 “wonder drug” that scientists in Kenya “invented” and, with the help of the media, touted to the world as an effective cure for HIV/Aids symptoms but was no better than a placebo.

Reporters should also examine the affiliations of a scientist and check for conflict of interest. An example is if a dentist is funded by toothpaste manufacturer to research on why people in certain regions of Kenya such as Nakuru, Baringo, Bogoria, Naivasha and parts of Kiambu, Bomet and Kericho have stained or brown teeth.

 

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