Clarity and soundness

I feel a lot of non-science editors just switch off when they read science stuff.

A friend told me this earlier today, during yet another conversation about how many of the editorial issues that assail science and health journalism have become more pronounced during the pandemic (by dint of the pandemic being a science and health ‘event’). Even earlier, editors would switch off whenever they’d read science news, but then the news would usually be about a new study discussing something coffee could or couldn’t do to the heart.

While that’s worrying, the news was seldom immediately harmful, and lethal even more rarely. In a pandemic, on the other hand, bullshit that makes it to print hurts in two distinct ways: by making things harder for good health journalists to get through to readers with the right information and emphases, and of course by encouraging readers to do things that might harm them.

But does this mean editors need to know the ins and outs of the subject on which they’re publishing articles? This might seem like a silly question to ask but it’s often the reality in small newsrooms in India, where one editor is typically in charge of three or four beats at a time. And setting aside the argument that this arrangement is a product of complacency and not taking science news seriously more than resource constraints, it’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

For example, a political editor may not be able to publish incisive articles on, say, developments in the art world, but they could still help by identifying reliable news sources and tap their network to commission the right reporters. And if the organisation spends a lot more time covering political news, and with more depth, this arrangement is arguably preferable from a business standpoint.

Of course, such a setup is bound to be error-prone, but my contention is that it doesn’t deserve to be written off either, especially this year – when more than a few news publishers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a pandemic even as they couldn’t hire a health editor because their revenues were on the decline.

For their part, then, publishers can help minimise errors by being clear about what editors are expected to do. For example, a newsroom can’t possibly do a great job of covering science developments in the country without a science editor; axiomatically, non-science editors can only be expected to do a superficial job of standing in for a science editor.

This said, the question still stands: What are editors to do specifically, especially those suddenly faced with the need to cover a topic they’re only superficially familiar with? The answer to this question is important not just to help editors but also to maintain accountability. For example, though I’ve seldom covered health stories in the past, I also don’t get to throw my hands up as The Wire‘s science, health and environment editor when I publish a faulty story about, say, COVID-19. It is a bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, but it’s not entirely unfair either: it’s the pandemic, and The Wire can’t not cover it!

In these circumstances, I’ve found one particular way to mitigate the risk of damnation, so to speak, quite effective. I recently edited an article in which the language of a paragraph seemed off to me because it wasn’t clear what the author was trying to say, and I kept pushing him to clarify. Finally, after 14 emails, we realised he had made a mistake in the calculations, and we dropped that part of the article. More broadly, I’ve found that nine times out of ten, even pushbacks on editorial grounds can help identify and resolve technical issues. If I think the underlying argument has not been explained clearly enough, I send a submission back even if it is scientifically accurate or whatever.

Now, I’m not sure how robust this relationship is in the larger scheme of things. For example, this ‘mechanism’ will obviously fail when clarity of articulation and soundness of argument are not related, such as in the case of authors for whom English is a second language. For another, the omnipresent – and omnipotent – confounding factor known as unknown unknowns could keep me from understanding an argument even when it is well-made, thus putting me at risk of turning down good articles simply because I’m too dense or ignorant.

But to be honest, these risks are quite affordable when the choice is between damnation for an article I can explain and damnation for an article I can’t. I can (and do) improve the filter’s specificity/sensitivity 😄 by reading widely myself, to become less ignorant, and by asking authors to include a brief of 100-150 words in their emails clarifying, among other things, their article’s intended effect on the reader. And fortuitously, when authors are pushed to be clearer about the point they’re making, it seems they also tend to reflect on the parts of their reasoning that lie beyond the language itself.