But scientists can also ward off irresponsible inferences. According to analysis in Nature:

Perhaps the most striking examples of successful communication were the articles that came from research led by Lindsay Young, a wildlife biologist with Pacific Rim Conservation in Honolulu, on the breeding behaviour of the Laysan albatross. Young was regularly quoted as saying ‘Lesbian is a human term. The study is about albatross. The study is not about humans.’ When asked what her study said about human behaviour, Young’s only quoted reply has been ‘I don’t answer that question.’

As a result, most of the media coverage of this research used the term ‘same-sex couples’ when referring to albatross pairing, and only one used ‘lesbian.’ More significantly, most of the coverage spent more time discussing the behaviour of the birds than speculating on its relevance to humans or poking fun at the findings. In this case, actively denying inappropriate speculation seems to have helped to restrain the tone of the articles without diminishing public interest in the work.

Indeed, as the analysis suggests, journalists do not need to sensationalize research to garner attention. The authors concede that, “Of course, journalists should be allowed to use crafty wordsmanship to engage public interest.” But a good writer should be able to tell the difference between crafty and crude.


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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.