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Can You Spot Bad Science Reporting?

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Science Reporting Gone Wild

In an era of sensationalized news and “alternative facts” it can be hard to figure out what to believe or not. And this is especially true when it comes to science and health news. Scientists are constantly publishing and presenting very technical research that then gets simplified by journalists who are looking to hook a general audience.There is a lot of room for error, or for major points to get hyped or lost in translation.

But crazy claims and bad science reporting dilutes the public’s understanding of science, which can have some big consequences. We need to make solid decisions–like how to vote, what to buy or what can make us sick. And these decisions can have major environmental and health implications.  

We’ve combed through resources, and talked to scientists, journalists and educators to come up with our top four tips for you to use to be a critical consumer of science news. We call it G.L.A.D. :

  1. Get past the clickbait
  2. Look out for crazy claims
  3. Analyze sources
  4. Determine outside expert opinions

Get Past the Clickbait
News stories often use sensational headlines that oversimplify or exaggerate the science to get the reader’s attention. Make sure you read or watch the whole story.


Look out for Crazy Claims
If the claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Look out for words like “cure,” “breakthrough,” and “study proves.” Those are all signs that the story might be hyping the science.

Analyze Sources
What sources does the story cite? Are they referencing other news outlets? If so, like a game of telephone, it’s easy for science to get misconstrued as it trickles down from scientists to public relations people to the press. Is the story based on anecdotal information? For example, does the story make broad scientific conclusions based on one or two individuals’ experiences? Those stories are less trustworthy than those based on science research. Science news stories based on research published in a peer reviewed science journal are more legit than say a story coming from an organization or person trying to sell stuff.

Determine Outside Expert Opinions
Does this news story ask outside experts to comment on the research? Good reporting usually involves talking not only to the scientists that conducted the study, but also to others that weren’t directly involved. These scientists can comment on how the research fits in with the larger body of evidence in a given field.

Just make sure the experts being interviewed are actually qualified to talk about the topic. Having a Ph.D in astrophysics doesn’t automatically qualify you to talk about advances in marine biology.
Use these tips to be a more critical consumer of science news.

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices.

Learn More…

INTERACTIVE: Data and Documents Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? (Science)
“Between January and June 2013, Science contributing correspondent John Bohannon submitted 304 fake research papers to open access journals.” Find out which publications failed his test.

ARTICLE: Untangling Media Messages and Public Policies (Understanding Science)

ARTICLE: 10 Questions To Distinguish Real From Fake Science (Forbes)

ABOVE THE NOISE, a new YouTube series from KQED, follows young journalists as they investigate real world issues that impact young people’s lives. These short videos prompt critical thinking with middle and high school students to spark civic engagement. Join hosts Myles Bess and Shirin Ghaffary for new episodes published every Wednesday on YouTube.

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