I am a big fan of Jorge Chan’s PhD Comics, where he pokes gentle fun at scientists. One of my favorite panels is “The Science News Cycle” (May 18, 2009). While many researchers dream of seeing their work featured in the popular press, there is real concern that their findings will be lost in the translation, or even misrepresented. How can the public distinguish between hype and reality? The ongoing Ebola epidemic is a case study in how scientific information is communicated by the popular press. For example, a headline on CNN.com on Oct. 6, 2014 read: “Ebola in the air? A nightmare that could happen.” The title (and even the article’s URL) imply that the Ebola is, or will become, airborne. This change in transmission would be of serious concern, since the Ebola virus can presently be transmitted only through direct contact with bodily fluids. However, while the article interviews scientists who describe why they believe Ebola could become airborne, there is no evidence presented in the article to support this claim. When I read articles about a science or health topic, I consider several things. First, what tone does the title take? Does it try to grab my attention by hyping a claim (Vitamin D Cures Cancer!) or is the title more balanced? Does the writer report basic facts correctly? What is the quality of the sources used by the writer - are experts in the field interviewed or consulted? Finally, what information has been released by trusted experts? For example, in response to the concerns about airborne transmission, both the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control provided extensive information on their websites about the lack of evidence for airborne transmission.
For coverage of the Ebola outbreak and other science topics, I regularly visit several sources. The New York Times has an excellent science section, with feature articles updated on Tuesdays. Science journalists, including Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong, present science in a thorough and approachable manner. Both maintain blogs at National Geographic and are regular contributors to other publications.
-Jenny Tenlen, Biology Faculty
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