In the early 1990’s, an investigative reporter named John Crewdson began a series of articles on AIDS research, navigating a maze of claims and counterclaims over who first isolated the virus. Crewdson, of the Chicago Tribune, was a tireless researcher, an elegant writer, and—as he insisted—not a science writer. Science writers he classed with stenographers. They just wrote down what scientists told them and dutifully repeated it, he explained at a journalism conference.
I remember seething over this with Laurie Garrett, a science writer from Long Island’s Newsday. Garrett later won a Pulitzer Prize for her incisive and compassionate reporting on infectious disease in Africa and Asia. Her perspective on good reporting is notably intrepid—“If scientists are wearing masks and gloves, put them on, too.” She was insulted by Crewdson’s characterization, not only for herself, but also for her profession, and even for me.
For many years people have described me as an investigative science reporter. While working at The Sacramento Bee, I’d spent much of the late 1980’s tracking deception in nuclear weapons programs. I’d been part of a reporting team that detailed the failures of our local nuclear power plant, since shut down. When Crewdson made his comment, I was starting an investigation into primate research. I didn’t spend much time worrying about his words. I’d already made so many public record requests that the flood of documents spilled onto the neighboring desk. And I was too busy trying to persuade reluctant researchers to tell me about their monkey experiments.
Nor did I think Crewdson knew what he was talking about. But similar criticisms of science writers have continued over the years, among them that we don’t do enough tough-edged reporting. “Investigative reporting in the sciences is virtually nonexistent,” a friend of mine complained recently. Another charge is that science reporters are too accepting of what researchers tell them. Even Garrett, when she wrote about the way journalists cover infectious disease, complained that “Our profession has failed to consistently demand proof, not only that the new innovations of biology and medicine work, but also that the old dogmas and remedies stand the test of time.”
These are valid criticisms, but I think—and I hope—they are becoming less valid as science writing matures. We are increasingly more willing to challenge dogma, to question heralded results. And our determination to do this arises, in part, because such challenges matter. Often we speak of the watchdog press as keeping an eye on government, yet science and medicine are also extraordinarily powerful forces, altering people’s lives for better and worse. They need—no, they demand—similar scrutiny.
As with government, scientific research must be considered a wholly human endeavor—full of promise and ideas and dedication but also politics and greed and wrong-headedness. Maryland physicist Robert Park likes to point out that “A Ph.D. is not an inoculation against stupidity.” Nor do I think that tough questioning should be limited to high-profile investigations. A good reporter investigates every time he or she writes a story. No credible science writer accepts a researcher’s assessment of his work (brilliant! brilliant!) at face value. Since none of us is an expert in every branch of science—capable of independent analysis of high-energy physics one day and molecular biology the next—investigation, then verification, becomes part of the basic foundation of many stories.
It is here that science writing stands apart from many other beats. The daily checking of facts is much more complicated because deciphering of research itself is so complex. A journalist must understand the science, at least enough to give it context, and must be able to evaluate the research. Is the research a part of mainstream science or is the science in question just smoking at the fringe? Are these preliminary results or confirmations? A judgment must be made as to whether findings are credible or not. What’s the researcher’s reputation? What kinds of scientists agree with the author’s assessment? Are they friends or business partners? Can they be objective?
Sometimes I think the reason science writers do so little big-scale investigative reporting is that they exhaust themselves just trying to get the stories right on a day-to-day basis. Additionally, many science writers must constantly traverse a wide research terrain, reporting about molecular biology one week, high-energy physics the next, and then moving on to environmental toxicology. The nature of our job provides little time to burrow in.
Investigating Nuclear Weapons Laboratories
What is required to begin an investigative science story is time. I began my journalism career as a police reporter. I used to think of cops as peculiarly insular, but I’ve come to realize that almost every professional community displays some of that same us-against-them mentality. It was with that awareness that I began my investigation of the nuclear weapons laboratories.
These are U.S. Department of Energy facilities located in California and New Mexico. In the late 1980’s, money was pouring into those programs. I wondered precisely what it was buying. I’d done a few weapons lab stories, and I knew that the weapons designers were wary to the extreme. So I proposed to my editors that I do a series on weapons designed in California—interesting even superficially—with the underlying motive of trying to crack into the bomb-maker circle.
I made myself an internal bet that if I was just patient, someone in that inner circle would begin to trust me. For six months, I visited weapons labs, talked to nuclear physicists, admired hulking lasers, and read up on weapons design. I went to the Nevada Test Site, where they were testing nuclear weapons underground, put on a construction helmet, and stood in the shadowy corridor where the bomb would be detonated.
One evening a scientist from one of the weapons labs took me to dinner and said he liked what I had written. And, by the way, he thought lab administrators were lying about some of those newer weapons. He had the documents to prove it—and copies for me. The resulting stories I wrote eventually helped to provoke a congressional investigation of those weapons and halt some unwarranted projects. This scientist was absolutely right. The weapons in question didn’t work.
Not that I took his word for it. Nor did I entirely trust the documents. Just as people lie, so do documents. I spent hours verifying what was in those pages. As a science journalist, I needed another kind of source as well, what I think of as an objective technical expert. I’m not a nuclear physicist or a biologist or a scientist in any of the fields I cover. So if I’m going to criticize science, I need my conclusions checked and double-checked.
The other kind of sources I cultivated at the weapons labs were physicists that I trusted enough to ask if I was getting it right. Was I describing a stockpile test accurately? Had I cited the detonation sequence correctly? It’s the small details that can trip you up, and if I’m going to accuse a government laboratory of deception, I don’t want to puncture my story with errors, even little ones.
Implicit in all of this, of course, is that to do it right—or even to get the story—takes time. And this means a real commitment must be made by the paper as well as by the journalist. The Bee, during my time there, was extraordinarily supportive. I had some key editors who fully recognized the potential of covering science. There were others who didn’t, and they couldn’t be troubled to learn. When I covered the first shuttle launch after the Challenger explosion, one editor asked me if it was going to be a manned mission. Years later, I still haven’t figured out a diplomatic answer.
Reporting Science at Newspapers
A continuing challenge for science writers—especially at small- to medium-sized papers—is that they too rarely have a science-savvy editor. Editors often don’t understand the science enterprise and thus don’t push for the investigative promise there. I was fortunate to find supportive editors, but not every journalist does. It also helps to have built up some credibility. One of the personal benefits of that nuclear weapons series was that my editors were willing to gamble on me. That experience helped when I told them I wanted to spend a lot of time looking at monkeys. The investigation into primate research eventually won a Pulitzer.
This reporting project began with what I call “pattern recognition”—a strategy I now try to teach my journalism students. The challenge is how a reporter recognizes an important pattern before it is revealed in a formal report. I tend to listen for it: It can be found in the sound of the same idea repeated in different contexts. By the time I began reporting on the primate research story, I’d been a science writer long enough to have many scientists ask me to hold back details of their experiments on animals. They didn’t want animal advocates noticing them. It began to seem like a secrecy pattern. How could anyone understand animal research if people who knew about it—including the reporters who covered it—kept hiding it from the public?
I decided to use monkeys to tell the story for a number of reasons. They are smart, social, genetically close, often endangered and, by using their circumstance, I could raise each of the ethical issues that interested me. And I had discovered that California was the only state that quarantined all primates upon entry to the state. That meant there were records on every monkey. I filed a public record act request to get these records. As I examined the detailed records of thousands of animals, I knew that I could start pulling apart those layers of secrecy.
Actually, it was easier to get the documents than to persuade researchers to talk with me. It took me almost a month of arguing, negotiating and cajoling to line up the first interviews. No surprise there—it fit perfectly with the secrecy pattern.
It’s worth exploring another kind of pattern, and that concerns how often science writers do this kind of investigative story. The short answer is—not often enough. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned and because we still, culturally, are deferential toward science, the pronouncements of research too frequently go unchallenged. This is especially a problem at smaller newspapers, where there might be one overstretched science writer, if there is one at all. But examples of this can be found at almost any publication.
Still, my sense is that this circumstance is changing for the better. At the regional level, there are signs of solid investigative reporting—melding tough questioning with healthy skepticism—as exemplified by The Seattle Times’ fine series on clinical trials in cancer research. At the national level, some remarkably good investigative reporting occurs, such as The Washington Post’s detailed exploration of the challenges and failures of gene therapy and The New York Times’ relentlessly thorough coverage of women’s health issues. Is it as much as I would like to see, as much as I think is needed? Absolutely not, but the direction is definitely the right one.
The common ground in many of the current investigative science stories is medicine. This makes sense since reporters justifiably concentrate on research that most directly affects people’s lives. Still, I could wish for more explorations into physics and earth sciences and even, once again, weapons design. I’ve talked about some of the challenges to investigative science reporting, but they are not excuses. We do could better. I hope the next generation of science writers surpasses mine by far.
When I teach science writing, I ask my students to investigate a risk and make their own decision about the science involved. I ask them to question research results as they would in reporting any other story. I usually assign one thoroughly skeptical book, such as Robert Park’s “Voodoo Science” or even John Crewdson’s “Science Fictions,” which brings me back to stenography.
In the spirit of investigation, while writing this article I contacted Crewdson and asked him if he still thought of science writers that way. He said the answer was more complicated: “There certainly are some good science and medicine reporters around, and I think the general quality is better than 10 or 15 years ago. But there’s still an awful lot of ‘Dr. A says this, but Dr. B says that.’” He wanted it understood, though, that he no longer thinks of science writers as reporters who merely repeat what they’re told.
Crewdson is right when he observes the continuing practice of citing dueling quotes and calling it a day. But I want another point understood as well: we were never stenographers.
Deborah Blum is a science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of “The Monkey Wars” (Oxford, 1994), “Sex on the Brain” (Viking, 1997), and co-editor of “A Field Guide for Science Writers” (Oxford, 1997). Her latest book, “Love at Goon Park” (Perseus), will be published in October. She serves as president-elect of the National Association of Science Writers (http://nasw.org).