Identifying Scientific News

What is news?

A quick google search will tell you it’s “newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.”

But that’s only half the story really, isn’t it? News can be big or small, individual or general. It can be subject specific or broad. What is news to one person may not be news to everybody. Its a big question and I’m still not sure if there is a definitive answer. This paper has an interesting, in-depth exploration of the question but be warned – it’s a heavy read!

When it comes down to it,  I think “news is people” sums things up nicely. If it’s not relevant to the people, it isn’t news.

But what about scientific news? Is it any different to other forms of news? How? Why? Scientific news can be pretty niche, attracting a very particular readership. But when science is seen as being controversial it reaches a wider audience. Many people are more aware of genetic modification than they are of the cognitive abilities of corvid birds.

The apparent controversy of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has made it an interesting and far-reaching topic of news and part of that controversy is linked to its proximity to readers. Many readers will have consumed food that is a product of GMO, so a story about GMO is likely to have some relevance to them. This is also true, perhaps more so, of many topics involving health issues such as Alzheimer’s or cancer.

But science doesn’t always directly involve people, seemingly going against the idea that “news is people.”

The people often predominantly involved in a news piece about science are the researchers, and they are seldom the focus of the story. Such news is very often a “what” story, not a “who” story.

A commonly heard phrase with a somewhat uncertain origin is that news is something “someone doesn’t want you to write about; everything else is advertising.” If this is true, is scientific news truly ‘news’? It could be argued that a rival scientist or a company that stands to gain from ignorance on a subject will not want scientific information published but the vast majority of researchers will want it published. Does that then mean that scientific news is an advertisement? Is it both? A Schrodinger’s cat of journalism, if you will.

If we fall down that rabbit hole we may never climb out again.

I think it is safe to say that some science is news, if it is unusual enough, noteworthy enough, and relevant enough to a significant number of people, be that in or out of the scientific community.

There’s a problem there though. Experiments often end with negative results which are seldom published in journals, let alone mainstream media. They tend to be less interesting descriptions of how not to do something or how a theory doesn’t make the cut when tested. The problem with this is that ‘no data’ is still data. It’s important that we know which is the wrong way to do science, so that we can figure out the right way. This is seldom reported on though, because no data isn’t interesting. So does that mean only fruitful results are newsworthy?

Not necessarily.

If a negative result challenges previous information, or is unusual enough, it may still make the headlines.

Those headlines might just have a very specific audience.

Published by OwenL

Natural sciences communicator.

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