Reading Beyond Headlines

Dec 1 2017
Written by NYU Shanghai

On Wednesday, faculty and science journalists from Nature and Guokr examined how scientific discoveries, with errors both in journalism and in research, often result in hyperbolized, misleading news reports.

The panel moderator, NYU Shanghai’s Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Yifei Li, opened the discussion by introducing a clip from John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” showing a number of fake news reports claiming everything from “how late night snacking damages the brain” to “drinking a glass of wine is equivalent to spending an hour at the gym.”

“Of course we can’t base our knowledge on a single article’s findings, especially reading it in an oversimplified way, but some findings are particularly alluring,” said Xuan Li, NYU Shanghai’s Assistant Professor of Psychology. “Come on, who wouldn’t prefer to believe that a glass of wine is better for us than an hour in the gym?”  

Li maintained that readers must be responsible when determining source credibility, and recognize their own emotional susceptibility to particular biases, even though both journalists and scientists are responsible for what is reported and how.

“When we publish articles, we try to make sure  there’s enough evidence to support the claim.  But, sometimes research, too, can be wrong,” explained Guokr (果壳网) science journalist Boran Zhang, who has 2.96 million followers on Weibo.



David Cyranoski, Asia-Pacific correspondent of Nature magazine, agreed that fake news is a result of misleading journalism as well as more or less honest mistakes in research. “Unfortunately, scientists also have their own beliefs that they want to confirm. But, if an article isn’t good, it won’t get published,” he said. “If the findings don’t match with their ideas, scientists may try to find a way to make them compliant.”

Cyranoski, who specializes in reporting on stem cells, neuroscience and geophysics, asserted that scientists do not have an obligation to report their findings to the general public. “Reporting news is not their job, so I wouldn’t say it’s an obligation. But, it is their obligation to engage with journalists who will subsequently share their knowledge.”

Panelists reached a consensus that a huge factor of why “fake news” circulates so virally is that scientific news is often too complex for public comprehension. “Our traditional way of talking about science is too cold and too removed,” said Zheng Zhang, Professor of Computer Science, who often writes about his research for popular audiences.

Li pointed out that scientific journalism is in an entirely different realm of its own. “Good journalism requires a certain set of skills that are often not included in a PhD program -- for example, making research more palatable to the everyday reader by removing jargon.”

Drafted by Aleksandra Lekowska ‘18