Experimental Tweets

Is Twitter enhancing the relationship between science journalists and their readers, or coming between them?

While Twitter’s role in the coverage of the election in Iran has been heavily publicized, the social platform has also been changing the hierarchy of communication in science and health news. Scientists are using Twitter to disseminate a wealth of information, ranging from stream-of-consciousness thoughts to links to recent studies and conferences. For science journalists, this interior view of the scientific community can be particularly useful in their reporting.

“It lets the world see how a scientific mind works, as it were—all the superb digressions, hunches, and obsessions that fuel a really great scientific mind. For science journalists, being able to read and enjoy the ‘thought casting’ of smart, science-minded people is an amazing way to keep up with what’s going on in various scientific fields,” said Clive Thompson, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and author of the science, technology, and culture blog Collision Detection, in an e-mail.

Twitter’s quick-delivery capacity has, on occasion, helped science reporters to break news. Take, for instance, the recent scare at NASA that a small piece of debris floating in space was likely to hit the U.S. space station, potentially causing damage. Nancy Atkinson, science editor at Universitytoday.com, broke the story on Twitter by listening in on audio feeds of the station—and immediately science reporters across the country tweeted with updates on the possible collision.

Eric Berger, a science reporter for the Houston Chronicle, was one of the reporters who live-tweeted the event. “She [Nancy Atkinson] prompted me to listen to it, and get something on our website long before the Associated Press picked it up,” he said in an interview.

Twitter has also been used to break other science stories: the gunman scare at NASA’s Johnson Space Center; an earthquake in Los Angeles; coverage of bush fires in Australia; the collapse of a toxic ash pond in Tennessee.

But “real-time tweeting” is just one way that Twitter is changing the way journalists report news. As Thompson says, Twitter also gives users a potentially huge network of people with similar thoughts and interests, all of whom can share information. For science and health journalists, this can mean anything from staying in touch with their sources to monitoring buzz in the scientific community.

There seems to be some consensus—among both scientists and journalists—that by following scientific communities on Twitter, reporters can filter the hundreds of studies that are published daily and write about the ones that scientists find most exciting. Dr. Andrew Maynard, a scientist who blogs at 2020science.org, says that he often uses Twitter to share information with journalists and news readers, in particular to spread awareness about certain topics.

It’s a two-way street, though. Dr. Pauline Chen, who is a columnist for The New York Times, refers her patients to certain Twitter feeds that may be useful to follow. “What’s been wonderful about Twitter is it’s really been a way to tap into resources that I would never come upon on my own,” said Chen in an interview.

Science journalists tapping into those resources have also found fodder for news stories. A January blog post at Scientific American, about whether parents of embryonic stem cell lines need ethical protection, was inspired by a question posed by a follower of SciAm’s own Twitter feed. Betsy Mason, science editor of Wired.com, says that she and her reporters often cull followers’ comments for story ideas.

Another point to consider is the way Twitter gives readers direct access to information previously provided by science and health journalists. Chen’s recent article in The New York Times—about medicine in the age of Twitter—highlighted an interesting result from a recent Pew study on how Americans receive their health news:

61 percent of Americans go online for health information, and the majority of them have turned to user-generated health information.

That last bit is important, because if an online platform like Twitter is increasingly becoming a source of health information for the public—and granted, some of it will be misinformed, slanted, or just bad, but let’s consider the valuable, expert voices to which Chen refers—it makes a strong argument for health (and other) reporters, too, to utilize Twitter as a reporting tool to gather information.

But heed caution, fellow journalists. Despite the potential benefits for health and science reporting, it’s still unknown how accurate Twitter can be. “There is very little control of the validation of that information,” Maynard said about postings on Twitter. Recently, a fireball landing in Texas caused a flurry of tweets, leading to confusion over the source of the fireball. It was falsely confirmed through Twitter that the fireball was from a satellite collision; in fact, the person quoted had said that it was possibly from a satellite collision. More misinformation soon followed, and it wasn’t until journalists were able to synthesize the tweets and additional reporting into a cohesive story that a clear explanation for the event was learned. So much for the wisdom of crowds.

Another concern—and this is a big one—about using Twitter as a communication platform for journalists will be realizing that Twitter sells sex…sexy stories, that is. Biology, space, health—science that is shocking (conjugation, oh my!) grabs more followers than do, say, advances in toxicology. And because there are only 500 or so scientists on Twitter, developments that many scientists find fascinating may not reap the benefits of Twitter exposure—either because they’re not scandalous or because they’re not getting tweeted about in the first place (and it wouldn’t take a scientist to figure out that the two are likely related). Twitter may have a pulse on sexy science, but that’s not necessarily the science that needs to be reported.

One question remains: If Twitter is breaking down barriers and facilitating direct conversations between scientists and news readers, could it eventually carry on that conversation without the help of science and health journalists?

Gary Schwitzer, a health journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and the publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, thinks it could, though “not without some peril.” But, he said in an e-mail, “I’m sure it will happen. If they [scientists] don’t like having their data scrutinized. If they don’t trust the way their work has been summarized or conveyed by traditional media.”

Others think differently. “There is so much information out there. Information alone doesn’t empower you as a patient. Having expertise and sorting out, that’s helpful for a patient,” says Chen. Dr. Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health, prefers to see Twitter as simply another way for journalists to let “people know what you think is interesting and important—and in seeing what others think is compelling.” What do you think of Twitter? How do you use it in science and health reporting?

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.