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?