Journalism, Science Students Taught To Tune Their B.S. Detectors

August 8, 2018

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EJ Academy: Journalism, Science Students Taught To Tune Their B.S. Detectors

By Sara Shipley Hiles

Science, health and environmental journalists have a thing or two to teach the world about “fake news.”

Long ago, we learned the dangers of propaganda, hype and deliberate misinformation masquerading as truth (see “vaccines”). And we learned to avoid falling for “false balance” in the name of objectivity (see “climate change”).

Yet as journalists became expert b.s. detectors, the world seemed more awash in “alternative facts” than ever.


We wanted to unite two professions that have

important roles as truth-tellers in society

but often speak in different languages.


So to teach students how to fact-check both science and science news, we started a new honors seminar at the University of Missouri this past spring called “Manipulation and Misrepresentation of Science: Combating Threats to Democracy.” I co-taught the class with journalism associate professor Katherine Reed and biochemistry professor Peter Tipton.

We founded the class on our shared belief that the truth matters — especially when it comes to science. When people don’t understand how to evaluate empirical data, they can’t make informed choices.

We also wanted to unite two professions that have important roles as truth-tellers in society but often speak in different languages. For our 16-student class, we recruited half journalism students and half science students, including four graduate students and 12 undergrads. And we made them work together in teams (gasp!) and learn from each other.

Case studies focus on ‘spectacular failures’

We organized the class around some spectacular failures in the public understanding of science, starting with the quaint belief, once promoted by tobacco companies, that smoking doesn’t cause cancer.

We moved on to climate change disinformation campaigns promoted by the fossil fuel industry and abetted, unwittingly, by journalists.

Screenshot of “The Vaccination Examination” shows the opening screen of an informal quiz used to address vaccine myths and benefits. Image: University of Missouri. Click to enlarge.

From there, we covered both liberal and conservative bugaboos, including nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms, vaccines, the flat Earth conspiracy and more.

We gave students a mix of critical thinking assignments aimed at science literacy and information literacy. Students regularly reviewed science news articles, analyzing the author’s expertise, whether the information was linked to primary sources, and whether the data and visuals were accurate.

Journalism students admitted that reputable publications sometimes fell short — for example, we all had a hard time deciphering one New York Times graphic — and they helped science students understand media ethics.

We also discussed the vulnerabilities of the scientific method: the crisis of replicability, the limitations of peer review, and scientific misconduct and mistakes. We gave examples of how easily data can be distorted. Science students shared their own experiences working in the lab, which gave budding journalists insight into their world.

To understand why science gets manipulated and misunderstood, we looked at the science of science communication. We talked a lot about confirmation bias and motivated reasoning — the human tendency to process information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We also discussed the rise of tribalism, a rigid group-think blamed for informational intransigence.

Projects including climate, flu, cancer, GMOs

For a final project, we put the students in groups of four, each made up of roughly half journalism and half science students. We asked them to pick a controversial science topic, conduct a survey and develop an evidence-based message communicating through a game, video, song or other creative multimedia concept.

As their final topics, the students picked climate change, the flu vaccine, cancer causes and GMO foods.

The flu vaccine team surveyed 296 people and found about half of them didn’t get a flu shot last year, mostly because they “didn’t have the time” or “didn’t see the need.” Their survey also found that most people couldn’t explain how vaccines work or what herd immunity was.

Students also created a 10-question interactive quiz called “The Vaccination Examination” using an informal, Buzzfeed style. The quiz asked users how many people went to the hospital for flu complications in a year (71,000) and whether you can get the flu from the flu vaccine (no).

Screenshot of “Are You Smarter Than a Scientist?” game show video aimed at explaining cancer to middle schoolers. Image: University of Missouri. Click to enlarge.

The cancer-causes team went with a humor strategy. They decided to make a game show aimed at middle schoolers, modeled on the popular TV show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”

The show used a quiz format to explain how cancer actually occurs and address common misconceptions about what does and doesn’t cause it. One question asked, “Which of the following does NOT cause cancer?” Options were birth control, GMOs, diet soda or “all of the above.” If you answered D, “all of the above,” you are correct!

The climate change team found that 93 percent of its survey respondents — mostly college students — believed that climate change is happening and 72 percent said human activity was responsible.

But about half didn’t know that almost all climate scientists agree on these facts. And many people couldn’t explain a fundamental concept in climate science, the carbon cycle.

The team created an informational website about climate change. My favorite part was their page on the carbon cycle. It explained how burning fossil fuels led to a disruption in the Earth’s natural carbon recycling process, leading to global warming. (Personally, I think The Carbon Cycle would be a good name for a musical group, but we’ll leave that for next semester.)

Finally, the GMO team survey found that 65 percent of respondents said GMOS were safe, 25 percent said maybe and 10 percent said not at all. Respondent comments ranged from “crops have been genetically modified since the dawn of agriculture” to “I don't think we need to eat anything chemically modified.”

The students created several infographics addressing common concerns that GMOs are toxic, unhealthy or artificial. One poster included a statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The science is quite clear: Crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”

Students face professional challenges


The students faced many of the same challenges

professional journalists do: finding and vetting

information sources, deciding what to include, and

explaining science in a clear and understandable way.  


In creating their projects, the students faced many of the same challenges professional journalists do: finding and vetting information sources, deciding what to include, and explaining science in a clear and understandable way.  

They also took into consideration what we’ve learned about how audiences process scientific information. They avoided mocking or talking down to the audience, and they used humor, visuals and interactivity to increase appeal.

Of course, one college course isn’t going to save the world. But we felt — and the students seemed to agree — that it was one small step toward deeper understanding.

As one science student put it in a post-course evaluation: “If you have a background in science, people are going to ask you about science, so it’s critical to have thought about these issues and how you want to present them. This also gave me some invaluable insight into how people in journalism think about science and how best I can interact with them in a way that will be positive for everyone.”

A journalism student said: “I think the most important aspect of this course is that it teaches journalism students how to communicate with individuals who have a scientific background, and science students how to communicate their research to the public. It also teaches all of these students how to read into research studies as well as news articles to make sure they are legitimate (examples: sample sizes, fact-checking, who wrote the article/conducted the study, etc.). These are vital tools to learn in both fields.”

Sara Shipley Hiles is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where she teaches writing, reporting, investigative journalism and science journalism, among other subjects. She hopes to teach the new course again next spring.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 29. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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