From the Editor: 84.1 Ethics in Science Journalism

Melissa Stone | melissa.stone@yale.edu February 14, 2011

From the Editor: 84.1 Ethics in Science Journalism

Angle. Slant. Spin. Whether we are explaining to a professor why we were late to class or telling our friend why our boyfriend broke up with us, we often eliminate or emphasize specific details from our story to influence our audience. Although this may be commonplace or even intuitive to many of us in everyday conversations, doing the same when writing for the public violates journalism ethics.

Last month, in retaliation to many years of scientific research suffering from political meddling, John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, issued a memorandum to American media outlets when reporting on scientific findings. He described the integrity that these outlets must maintain, such as describing “both optimistic and pessimistic projections” with regards to scientific data. However, the importance of this memorandum transcends beyond the political realm. The public has the right to be properly educated about their surroundings. If a story is released by FOX News, The New York Times, or even the Yale Scientific, the audience expects a nondiscriminatory account of the facts and we as journalists should aim to satisfy them but the temptation to “hype” the story often remains.

Unfortunately, journalists suffer from economic pressures, endeavoring that their articles attract a greater audience so that the publication profits, in addition to societal pressures in which the writer would achieve popularity and success for a groundbreaking article. Due to these demands, titles will be crafted to be “catchy,” limitations of the data will be omitted, and the significance of the work will be exaggerated.

However, as Editor for this magazine, I have learned over the past year that journalism ethics is not a field of black and white. For example, one of our featured articles for this issue entitled “Fighting Cancer: ARM-ing Up New Therapies” describes emerging research in the Spiegel lab in which they synthesize specific molecules to target receptors characteristic of certain cancers. Although the title might be interpreted as claiming that new cancer therapies are available while the researchers have only tested these therapies at the biochemical level, from an editorial point of view, a title such as this was appropriate. If the title stated, “Researchers Testing Potential Cancer Therapies at Biochemical Level But Do Not Yet Know If Synthesized Chemicals Will Treat Cancer,” less people will probably read the article and the scientists who have accomplished great research will not be properly recognized. While it is important to be bipartisan and to accurately portray all sides of each story, there are times when a bit of “hype” can do more good than harm.

This is my last issue as Editor-in-Chief and I will be passing the magazine to Gennifer Tsoi and her new masthead, who I am sure will commence many great issues. I would like to thank the masthead, staff, and contributors for their dedication, the advisory board for their guidance, and our subscribers and readers for their continual support. In addition to being one of the most enjoyable experiences of my time at Yale, my editorship has changed how I view the portrayal of science as a whole. As you read this issue, learn about recent studies in the newspaper, or hear about the latest scientific work on television, please be critical – think about the foundations of the research and what it actually means for the future of society – but rest assured that in the meantime, the staff for the Yale Scientific will be striving to remain true and honest.