A journalist's guide to the scientific method – and why it's important

Why should journalists care about the scientific method? I suggested in my post last week that journalism students should take a lab science class to learn about the scientific method. Here’s why I think that’s so important to journalists today.

The scientific method provides a standard procedure through which scientists gather, test and share information. Obviously, part of that should sound familiar because gathering and sharing information is what journalists do, too.

But there are substantial differences between the scientific method and journalism reporting. And while I believe that those differences did not affect journalism’s viability when newspapers had an information monopoly in their communities, our lack of standards for testing information is hurting us in today’s more competitive information market.

Before I go any further, let’s introduce the scientific method, for those readers who aren’t familiar with it. Here’s a good overview of the scientific method:

1. Find a topic or question worth exploring

2. Do some initial, background research to learn about your topic or question. Read what’s been written before.

3. Come up with a hypothesis. This is your best guess of what happened/is happening/will happen, based upon what you already know.

4. Test your hypothesis. You do this by collecting data, either through controlled experimentation or observation.

5. Look at and analyze your data.

6. Based on your analysis, either accept or reject your hypothesis.

7. Publish your information, including all relevant details on how you collected and analyzed your data.

The scientific method evolved over centuries as scientists looked for the best ways to test their theories about why things are they way they are in nature. Ultimately, science emerged from philosophy as scientists settled upon an empirical approach toward testing, rather than replying on “what made sense” to their ideas of logic.

But empirical analysis of information is just one part of the scientific method. Publication and open disclosure play essential roles, as well. Ultimately, the scientific method works because it not only provides a way to test data empirically, but to test others’ tests, as well. That couldn’t happen unless scientists shared their results, and told others how they obtained them.

Anyone who’s done A/B testing on a website design before has used empirical data. But only when you share your results do they become part of public knowledge, and not a mere trade secret.

The scientific method should matter to journalists because it represents humanity’s best method to date for observing and describing the world around us. Frankly, without the scientific method for expanding technical knowledge, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution never would have happened.

Journalists are supposed to observe and describe the world around us, too. But our methods don’t begin to approach the rigor of the scientific method. We simply don’t have the same commonly accepted procedures for our work that the science community uses. We do have a code of ethics, which provides guidance for those who choose to follow it.

The SPJ code’s first two lines strike me as most relevant here:

“Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.”

“Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”

Unfortunately, neither the SPJ code nor any other widely accepted procedure in journalism that I know of provides us any instruction on how to test the accuracy of information we receive from sources. And the second half of the SPJ’s statement suggests that the error we most should seek to avoid is distortion.

Ensuring that someone is quoted accurately is something very different than ensuring that what they say is true. Looking through the rest of the SPJ code, one sees a document focused on ensuring that a diversity of sources are included and that they are portrayed fairly and in appropriate context. Those are all noble goals, but don’t raise journalism much above the level of really good stenography.

Of course, to test, one must have a hypothesis to test. But we teach our reporters not to take a point of view in a news story, whether it be our own or one of our sources’. Instead, we are to present multiple points of view, even contradictory ones, and allow our readers to make whatever judgments they see fit.

That method worked well when journalists controlled the flow of information in a community, and we could silence voices by not including them. But that’s not the world we live in today. Communities don’t have a single printing press anymore – they have as many “printing presses” as there are Internet-connected people in that community. A code of ethics designed to promote the flow of accurately quoted information no longer serves a society that’s drowning in information and needs a way to separate the important from the trivial, and the truth from the lies.

Today’s journalism ethics are the ethics of a profession serving yesterday’s information-starved communities. Today, we need a journalistic method that serves communities seeking truth and relevance within the abundance of information surrounding them.

Scientists found a method that allowed them to accurately and truthfully observe and report upon the world. We need to find a method that works for us, as well. It doesn’t need to be the same method that science uses – we’re reporting to different audiences with different daily needs. But we need something that works better than the he-said, she-said, you-fall-asleep stenography too many of us are peddling now.

And peer review will have to play an important role within that, as it does for the scientific method. Journalists double-checking other journalists, as scientists do, will help encourage better journalism and ultimately encourage more public trust in our work. We don’t acknowledge, much less test, each others’ work often enough, and our reputation suffers for that.

Social networking is replacing journalism as the primary method for many sources to deliver information to communities. If journalism is to survive, we must transition from being a medium of information to becoming arbiters of that information. That’s what the public needs from us now.

But to do that, with the accuracy, honesty and truthfulness to which our profession should aspire, we need our own version of a scientific method to guide us in those judgments.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Excellent article!
    A brief module on the Confirmation Bias and how to avoid it would also go a long way.
    Melissza (scientist)