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News Media Spreads the Wrong News, Again

It's likely that many of you, our readers, have been concerned, as we here at FairerScience.org have, about the recent news that cell phones may disrupt the navigational capabilities of bees. We love our cell phones and the convenience they provide, but we also love our honey, and, even more than that, we love the ecological function that bees serve. So it was very, very upsetting to hear that cell phones and bees might not coexist peacefully.

But I should know better than to take mass media's reports on a scientific study as the empirical gospel. Because I know that journalists often get it wrong, especially when there's a big flap about a finding. And so, I shouldn't be surprised to read in "Wireless: Case of the disappearing bees creates a buzz about cellphones" that not only was the study too small to be significant, but that it wasn't even studying cell phones. Rather, it was a study of cordless phones' impact on bees.

Mass media attention is a mixed bag for researchers. On the one hand, we find what we're working on to be fascinating, and we want to share what we learn with the world. Especially those of us who are researching similarities and differences relating to gender, and who hope our results will change the way people move through the world and treat each other, we imagine the benefits of being in the spotlight. But we rarely imagine our results through the distorted lens of mass media:

"It's not my fault if people misinterpret our data," said Kimmel. "Ever since The Independent wrote their article, for which they never called or wrote to us, none of us have been able to do any of our work because all our time has been spent in phone calls and e-mails trying to set things straight. This is a horror story for every researcher to have your study reduced to this. Now we are trying to force things back to normal."

This is a great reminder for me to check the actual data before I buy into what a news story reports. And it further reminds me that one of the things we here at FairerScience.org need to be doing is helping people be critical audiences of mass media reporting on science, because if I already know that need exists and I didn't think about it in this case, what about all the folks who don't know in the first place?


I second the need to check data before swallowing a news report whole. But I also feel compelled to point out that it's not just in science reportage that this is necessary; we should read most news reports, blogs, Op-Eds, etc. with a critical eye (preaching to the converted here, I know). :) Mainstream news coverage gets a LOT of small details wrong, usually inconsequential ones, but because everything needs to be boiled down to the short and snappy sound bite, sometimes one of those tiny errors can lead to a major misunderstanding or misrepresentation.

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