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Should Environmental Reporting Get the Peer-Review Treatment?

A pair of German science journalism professors think so.
(Photo: indianadunes/Flickr)

(Photo: indianadunes/Flickr)

Scientists have a reputation for being effete snobs without any sense of how to engage the public, let alone any desire to do so. Science reporters, meanwhile, have a reputation for being sensationalist, intellectually lazy, occasionally drunken hacks. But beyond dubious archetypes lie some real problems. Chief among them: Universities pushing their own versions of scientific discoveries direct to the public, and reporters who really don't understand the science they cover.

Researchers Wiebke Rögener and Holger Wormer think they have a solution, at least as far as environmental reporting is concerned. In a new paper, they propose a kind of peer review, where environmental reporters dissect each other's articles and give feedback, in much the same way scientists do, to ensure that only quality research is published.

"[S]cience journalism—as journalism in general—appears to be in crisis especially in the United States, Canada and in Europe," Rögener and Wormer, researchers at Technische Universität-Dortmund in Germany, write in Public Understanding of Science, noting a decline in environmental news, most notably the New York Times' recent decision to close its environmental desk. At the same time, science communication—by which Rögener and Wormer mean environment pieces written by a university's in-house communications team and aimed directly at the public—is on the upswing, raising concerns about biased reporting.

"Most environmental stories fail to put scientific results into context properly."

What to do? Rögener and Wormer, themselves reporters with advanced science degrees, began by scouring the Web, journalism textbooks, and colleagues' brains for ideas on what constituted good environmental reporting. They then culled the list with the help of top German science writers. The end result: A 13-point criteria for identifying quality environmental writing and reporting, including covering solutions as well as problems, and reporting on political, cultural, and economic issues surrounding an environmental story.

As part of Rögener and Wormer's Media-Doctor project, they asked pairs of reporters to independently evaluate 50 news articles using the 13 environmental-reporting criteria. The reporter-reviewers passed their feedback on to an editor, who posted a synthesis of the reviews on Media-Doctor's website.

The results were intriguing. "According to the reviews, most environmental stories (42) fail to put scientific results into context (e.g. considering economic aspects) properly," Rögener and Wormer write. Other major weaknesses include failing to explore the validity of the research studies in question and not including both sides of a controversy "appropriately." On the other hand, few stories resorted to scaremongering, and reviewers generally agreed that the themes covered in environmental news were appropriate.

Still, the most surprising result might be the response from reporters whose stories Rögener and Wormer reviewed. "The most frequent answer, even from those whose stories are not highly ranked, is 'Thank you for the detailed feedback,'" Rögener and Wormer write.

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