On the importance of fact-checking and the challenge of daily science news
In conversation with Signe Dean
Signe Dean is a science journalist and the new editor of ScienceAlert. She will be a speaker at the upcoming AMWA conference talking about her passion for fact-checking and how to do it right.
CV: Signe, let’s start with some basics. What did you want to become as a child?
SD: I hardly remember. I think as a teenager I wanted to go into acting or get any job involved with television really. Both of my parents have worked in TV, and my dad has been a cameraman for over 30 years now.
CV: You were born and raised in Latvia. How did you end up in a career as science journalist in Australia?
SD: About seven years ago I immigrated to Australia, as my partner is Australian. We actually met at a scientific conference at my old university in Latvia. I was fresh from uni when I arrived in Australia. And I decided that I would like to pursue a career in science journalism.
CV: You have an interesting background for a science journalist, as you have a Bachelor’s in Philosophy. Do you think your philosophy degree gives you a different perspective on science compared to most of your colleagues and academics?
SD: That’s a good question. I think that my training in philosophy made me a critical thinker, which is a key skill to have as a journalist. I will address this topic further in my conference talk as getting the facts right when writing for the public is crucial. However, I have colleagues from all sorts of disciplines and their degrees have been equally helpful. What really matters as a science journalist is the ability to understand the principles of science, to think critically and clearly and to engage the audience in the subject.
CV: Signe, you took on an ambitious blogging project that you called ‘A Common Year’ in 2014. You wrote a science-related blog article every day for a whole year. That sounds like an intense workload. How was this experience for you?
SD: On one hand, I can recommend it, and strongly advise against it on the other, as it’s a massive undertaking. I learned a lot about discipline and time management. I kept myself motivated by telling other people about the project. I set aside a period of time every day and had to work in advance if I was planning to travel. After all, it turned out to be an incredibly good practise for writing. That’s what you do to become really good at it. You keep writing. I am actually quite proud of myself that I persevered and finished it.
CV: Before you started a full-time position, you worked as a freelance writer for several years. What do you like about it and what are the drawbacks?
SD: I really enjoyed the freedom and flexibility. You can write about the topics you really enjoy and work on a whole stack of different projects and for different media outlets. However, as every freelancing writer can tell you, there is the lack of financial stability. You also need a lot of self-motivation. My favourite period was when I was part-time freelancing and part-time working for SBS radio leading their Latvian language program. That was a very nice trade-off.
CV: You have just been promoted to the editor of ScienceAlert, an online science news outlet. How did you manage to successfully establish yourself as a science journalist in such a brief time, considering that you hadn’t started in the field before you came to Australia?
SD: It was a pretty natural progression of my career. When I arrived in Australia, I had the opportunity to establish a career in any field really. I decided that science journalism was the thing for me. Living in Sydney luckily comes with a lot of networking opportunities and regular science events are happening. I started at ScienceAlert on a freelancing basis in 2015. I really enjoyed working with them over the years. Eventually they offered me a permanent position. As the editor I am now in charge of the day-to-day science stories.
CV: In a way, you could say that you have gone back to your roots of daily science blog duties?
SD: Yes, in a way that is true. It is just a much bigger scope and much larger audience. ScienceAlert has about 10,000,000 readers per month. It is very exciting to write for such a large audience, especially since we cater for quite a broad audience and not just science enthusiasts.
CV: Addressing such a large audience comes with an increased responsibility. At the upcoming AMWA conference you will be talking about the importance of fact-checking and how this process is done at ScienceAlert. Can you please give us a little teaser of your talk?
SD: We take our fact-checking responsibility very seriously and have a rigorous procedure. Unfortunately, every now and then, little errors still slip through. One story has particularly stuck to my mind, as it was rather embarrassing. We had a story about the moons of Saturn. In the headline we mixed it up with Jupiter and had already posted the article on Facebook. Although we corrected the headline within minutes, we got lots of comments from readers complaining about the mistake. In online publishing mistakes occasionally happen, as it has an incredibly fast pace. This is one of the reasons why we have such a strict fact-checking procedure in place. Nothing goes out on the website without being looked at by at least three people. In my conference presentation I will also talk about how freelancing writers or media that don’t have such a strict system, can do fact-checking in an efficient way.
CV: The term ‘fake news’ is all over the place these days. Do you think there is an increase in false news in science as well?
SD: I could go on talking about this topic for days, as there is so much to it. Basically the term ‘fake news’ came into being for bits of writing that appeared online that people had simply made up. This is not really the issue in science. Here we have more the lack of fact-checking that can be a problem. This is especially so when journalists with little or no scientific background write about complex topics, such as cancer research. Another source of regular misinformation is health and wellness related content that has enjoyed massive popularity. A lot of the facts simply get lost in the noise of information overload. Often enough, the media try to cater for this thirst of information from the general public. Sometimes they don’t differentiate between facts and misconceptions. In most cases, this doesn’t happen intentionally, it simply gets overlooked. Therefore fact-checking is such an important tool to have in place.
CV: Thank you for the interview, Signe!