Telling the right story: same for sport as for science

By Grant Jacobs 22/09/2013


Journalists will know that scientists can be grumpy over stories about science being told wrongly.

Yesterday’s TVNZ coverage of the America’s Cup yacht race strikes me as an excellence example from sporting circles.

The scene: It’s a misty day. Two large, very sophisticated, two-hulled (catamaran) yachts are out on the water racing. One team, New Zealand, is one win away from winning the series. The wind is light, so progress is slow. The New Zealand yacht builds up a huge lead. A lead so large that bar the yacht breaking down it’d be unassailable. The TV commentary is babbling on about an upcoming winning of the series, the America’s Cup.

But the coverage isn’t telling the real story, the actual race that’s on the water. A race to finish the course before the cut-off time that the umpires will declare the race invalid and end it prematurely.

The audience, who are mostly not competitive sailors, are startled, dismayed, gutted when the race is called off seemingly out of the blue as the leading New Zealand yacht approaches the final buoy for the short run to the finish line.

There’s an uproar, with calls of ‘farce’, about the race, the rules.

The real farce was the TV commentary. It failed to tell the actual story happening.[1]

That’s how scientists see the worst of science reporting too. Not telling the story that’s actually happening. (As we’ll see, there are lesser sins, too.)

For science or medical stories the effect can be much greater than non-sailor fans in a small nation feeling, temporarily, miffed. The effects of some medical reportage done wrong spread internationally, can encourage poor health decisions and have long-term consequences.[2] The same could be said for other technical areas.

Two key things for both:

The background knowledge needed to cover the story.

Communicating the story accurately.

Same in sport as for science. And same for science as for sport.

Omissions can leave the wrong story being told.

The story of the yacht race, especially once a lead was opened up, was if the leading yacht could complete the course within the set time limit (40 minutes). Given the light winds this ought to have run right through the commentary including from before the start. Instead the story told was of an up-coming victory by a huge margin. Until the race was, in the eyes of the TV audience, suddenly abandoned.

Subsequent coverage has put the actual race story right.[3]

Unlike the sailing story, science stories told wrongly are rarely corrected later the same day and, in cases, cannot easily be corrected even years later. Once the wrong-headed notion is out there is almost impossible to stop it from spreading.

There’s also a smaller example from this sailing race that has received less attention.

Emirates Team New Zealand had a penalty awarded against them for cutting across the front of their competitor’s yacht against the right-of-way rules. (You can think of it as not giving way to the left when they ought to have.)

But the coverage didn’t say what the penalty was. In not saying what it was it didn’t communicate the importance of that event to the lay audience.

Was the penalty that they’d have to circle the yacht and lose ground, meaning they’d probably lost any chance of winning the race. Was a penalty points off in the series, so that if the other team won they’d effectively win two points rather than one. Or something else again. The lay audience was left clueless.

Same for science coverage. Often we see snippets that such-and-such happened or was done – without conveying to the non-specialist as to what it really was and hence the importance of it.[4]

It’s a bit like empty-headed commentary that “Joe has kicked the ball.” Well, yes, even a total klutz can see that Joe kicked the ball – but so what?

What is the importance of that to the game? Did the team again some ground? Was it a bad idea? A good idea? Is it that Joe just never kicks the ball and what-the-heck-just-happened-there?

Those reporting it need to know the importance of the things done, then convey them to non-specialists.

(I’m assuming communicating to non-specialists matters. Some audiences will be inherently be more knowledgable – I imagine those who watch lower division football might be an example. Even there, there are ways of conveying the importance of an action without talking down to the audience.)

Just as an audience would be peeved at wayward coverage of a sports event, the same applies to science coverage.

If you think that science v. a yacht race is a poor head-to-head comparison because science is more complex I’m not so sure, certainly not in the context of those America’s Cup races. There’s jargon. Off the top of my head: sheets, foils, dagger boards, grinders, trimmers, after-guards, velocity-made-good, pointing high, reaching and on it goes. There’s the sheer sophistication of the boats; a lot of technology and science has gone into them.

The (TV) coverage is pretty superficial. There’s a big gap between how a specialist would view it and how a novice might. (Or an occasional sailor, for that matter!)

Playing for the mass market might be expected, even though it will leave some wanting more substance.

But there’s no excuse for simply telling the wrong story, or not relaying the importance of the things done.

Footnotes

This article is—of course—an excuse to ruminate on a gray Sunday afternoon. Some might extend the telling the right story message to other topics and settings like fluoridation and local councils and teaching creationism in schools.

Mixing yachting and physics, fellow sciblogger Marcus has told readers about Relative velocity America’s Cup style.

1. As one example from other’s mouths a comment by ‘TripleM’ in response to this story, Low winds cost Team NZ Cup victory reads:

The only ‘farce’ was the TVNZ commentary. The Stuff bloggers mentioned the time limit through the entire race, saying it was looking unlikely, how far behind time we were, etc. The TVNZ commentators made it sound like we were cruising and about to win, totally misleading all of the audience, leading to this reaction.

The article the comment responds to opens with “Farce of a day ends with Oracle grabbing another Cup win.”

(To be up-front, I’m in part relying on what others have independently said as I viewed the coverage of the race on and off. Furthermore, I have poor hearing so it’s always possible I have not heard portions of the coverage. Regardless, the TV commentary was focused on an impending victory until quite late in the piece and much of the reportage [incl. on-line newspaper accounts] following the abandonment of the race expressed surprise.)

2. One well-known example would be the coverage of Andrew Wakefield’s claim to media of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and the suggestion that the multivalent (three-part MMR) vaccine be avoided. It is widely considered a key element behind an international resurgence of measles cases. (The effects can include long-term disability and, in a few cases, death.) I’m aware that at least one newspaper writing a public apology over it’s early coverage of the story, quite a long time later. (My recollection is that they apologised at the time of the measles outbreak in Wales; unfortunately I’ve not had any luck (yet) in relocating the article.) There is plenty of coverage of the topic itself (to say the least) including from sciblogs, Wakefield has not been vindicated and the courts do not think MMR causes autism, and the British Medical Journal. Other retractions by newspapers exist in relation to this wider story, e.g. in the Guardian.

3. I would like to have seen TVNZ stand up promptly, admit their error. This, too, applies to science coverage. If you err: correct it promptly. (A notice at the head of the original article may be needed. One thought here for media: in the science blogging scene it’s often considered the form to leave the error in, but struck out, so that later readers can see what took place and why early follow-on commentary might be at odds with later commentary.)

4. As I write I’m thinking of the discovery of a new organelle in plants. Consider: did the previous sentence say what an organelle is for a non-biologist and what the important of finding this new one might be?


Other articles on Code for life:

ScienceTeller 2013 and Genetics Week 2013

Three kinds of knowledge about science journalism

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

What should be taught in science communication courses?