This rather brilliant post from Martin Robbins’ The Lay Scientist blog on the Guardian website basically sums up what I (try to) do for a living. Those who can’t do teach and those who can’t hack it in the lab write… formulaically.
This is a news website article about a scientific paper
In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?
In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.
In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.
If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.
This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like “the scientists say” to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.
In this paragraph I will state in which journal the research will be published. I won’t provide a link because either a) the concept of adding links to web pages is alien to the editors, b) I can’t be bothered, or c) the journal inexplicably set the embargo on the press release to expire before the paper was actually published.
“Basically, this is a brief soundbite,” the scientist will say, from a department and university that I will give brief credit to. “The existing science is a bit dodgy, whereas my conclusion seems bang on,” she or he will continue.
I will then briefly state how many years the scientist spent leading the study, to reinforce the fact that this is a serious study and worthy of being published by
the BBC the website.
This is a sub-heading that gives the impression I am about to add useful context.
Here I will state that whatever was being researched was first discovered in some year, presenting a vague timeline in a token gesture toward establishing context for the reader.
To pad out this section I will include a variety of inane facts about the subject of the research that I gathered by Googling the topic and reading the Wikipedia article that appeared as the first link.
I will preface them with “it is believed” or “scientists think” to avoid giving the impression of passing any sort of personal judgement on even the most inane facts.
This fragment will be put on its own line for no obvious reason.
In this paragraph I will reference or quote some minor celebrity, historical figure, eccentric, or a group of sufferers; because my editors are ideologically committed to the idea that all news stories need a “human interest”, and I’m not convinced that the scientists are interesting enough.
At this point I will include a picture, because our search engine optimisation experts have determined that humans are incapable of reading more than 400 words without one.
This subheading hints at controversy with a curt phrase and a question mark?
This paragraph will explain that while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true.
In this paragraph I will provide balance with a quote from another scientist in the field. Since I picked their name at random from a Google search, and since the research probably hasn’t even been published yet for them to see it, their response to my e-mail will be bland and non-committal.
“The research is useful”, they will say, “and gives us new information. However, we need more research before we can say if the conclusions are correct, so I would advise caution for now.”
If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public “controversy” exists.
This paragraph will provide more comments from the author restating their beliefs about the research by basically repeating the same stuff they said in the earlier quotes but with slightly different words. They won’t address any of the criticisms above because I only had time to send out one round of e-mails.
This paragraph contained useful information or context, but was removed by the sub-editor to keep the article within an arbitrary word limit in case the internet runs out of space.
The final paragraph will state that some part of the result is still ambiguous, and that research will continue.
More research is needed to know if news stories about scientific studies will always read like this, but these findings shed new insight into the bullshit we science journalists churn out on a consistent basis.