That’s good advice. Following it would help reporters “reflect the evolution of scientific knowledge” described in the second PLOS paper, and avoid echoing the spin described in the first. As The Economist argued in an article about the PLOS paper titled, “Journalistic deficit disorder”:

A sensible prescription is hard. The matter goes beyond simply not believing what you read in the newspapers. Rather, it is a question of remembering that if you do not read subsequent confirmation, then the original conclusion may have fallen by the wayside.

As both PLOS papers made clear, there are things that journal reviewers and editors can do to guard against spin and indicate when and where new findings refute or attenuate earlier conclusions—and both papers have their own limitations, having to do mostly with the fairly narrow scope of each. But there’s no doubt that “single study syndrome,” as The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin calls it, is one of the most vexing disorders in science journalism. While it’s hard to talk about a cure, skeptical coverage that gives greater context to the latest research can do a lot to alleviate the symptoms.


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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.