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Tips from science journalism heroes

Joining the World Conference of Science Journalists is always a boost for me. I especially enjoy the sessions in which top-level science journalists explain how they worked on important investigative stories. These sessions inspire me to raise the standards of my job and recover my optimism about journalism.

There were quite a few such sessions in this year’s edition. Stéphane Horel and Sharon Lerner discussed their research on health-damaging chemicals, in conversation with the amazing Naomi Oreskes.

Another inspiring session was that on investigations of harassment in science, which provided the exceptional opportunity to hear a story told both from a victim and from the journalist that covered her case.

The session I will focus on in this post is the one called “Investigative methods for science journalism: Accounts from four award-winning reporters”.The panel made an effort to distil some useful tips from their experience. Here are a few of them.

1. Asking is always good. US journalist Deborah Nelson told the story of her research on the count of victims of superbugs like MRSA in the US. She found that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) had made inaccurate estimates of the number affected, and pointed to the absence of death codes explicitly related to superbugs: doctors mention them in their reports, but the death codes do not allow that information to be counted. So she decided to ask something unusual. She submitted a set of superbug-related terms for text search to the statistical office. Perhaps surprisingly, she got a positive reply and help in answering her query. She was therefore able to estimate that the number of death certificates involving superbugs was orders of magnitude higher than the official count.

2. You can find a new story in one that has already been reported. Norwegian filmmaker Anna Nordbeck talked about the documentary she worked on, “Fatal Experiment – The Downfall of a Supersurgeon”. The movie investigates Paolo Macchiarini, a doctor who carried out surgeries and published papers claiming that he could replace tracheas with plastic prostheses covered with the patients’ stem cells. The results were disastrous and almost no patient survived. While the story had already been covered in the press and even in another documentary, Nordbeck and her colleagues found, among other things, four whistle-blowers, that the Karolinska Institute had dropped its allegations against Macchiarini, and that even a patient who survived had massive problems that could be seen in endoscopy pictures.

3. Naming-and-shaming gets results. How can drug manufacturers make enormous profits out of drugs that are then proved to be harmful? This question – based on real cases, like that of the drug Paxil, which causes suicide ideation in teenagers – pushed Charles Piller to delve into the registers of, with the help of an algorithm developed for this work. The analysis checked whether the registered reports satisfied legal requirements. Piller discovered that the database was “incredibly inadequate” and that the most distinguished universities of the US were submitting reports that were very difficult to work with for patients and doctors. Piller said that a lot of organisations improved their behaviour after his stories. In one case, a company making the bold claim that their genetic tests could predict who would become an opioid addict, ended up being raided by the FBI and dissolved.

4. Find emotional support. South African freelance Sarah Wild was pursuing a basic research story while she discovered something disturbing. A forensic expert she was interviewing told her that one in 10 people that die of unnatural death in her province are unidentified. “You can get away with murder in this country”, she said. That led to research that included more than 20 unanswered emails to the police before getting a reply, visiting the mortuary, and witnessing the burial of tens of anonymous bodies. Migrants from neighbouring countries often end up killed in silence in South Africa and forensics are barely able to identify their race. Wild suggested seeking the emotional support of a colleague when covering stories of this kind. And she said that she could not have covered the story without the support of a grant she obtained.

Opinions expressed in the blog posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of WCSJ2019

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