The Science Behind Science News

joe Palco

NPR’s Dr. Joe Palca

What is a big science story? Ask Joe Palca, PhD, a science writer at National Public Radio, and he’ll you tell you the answer in five years. That’s because a good science story may not be obvious right away.

To demonstrate his point, Palca — who spoke at the convention Thursday — cited coverage of Nobel Prize winners. Major news outlets report on the Nobel Prize winners, including NPR. But go back a few years to when the award-winning research was published, and you’ll see hardly any articles on the topic. Palca said even he misses those stories because people don’t care as much about the paper until its author wins a Nobel Prize.

So what brings attention to science? One reason science appears in the media is because its connected to a celebrity, he said, citing increased attention to BRCA genes in May 2013, when actress Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about her double mastectomy.

Other stories come from papers that science reporters pick up on, Palca said, joking that sometimes news is what happens to the editor.

“The point is, I don’t know what’s important,” Palca said, adding that articles fly by his desk all the time. Sometimes they are important, but often, they’re not.

And sometimes, no news is good news, he said, recounting how he got a jump on a story about data coming from a Mars rover in 2012. Although the news was exciting, scientists wouldn’t tell Palca until they were sure it wasn’t a fluke. So Palca wrote a story about the “keeping mum” idea behind the tight-lipped scientists.

Science reporting also isn’t as easy as reporting on scientific articles. Sometimes, reporters file stories that are wrong and have to follow up with a piece about how a scientific journal article was retracted, Palca says.

“The dilemma is, ‘OK, everyone else is talking about it, and I don’t want to look like an idiot for not talking about it, but I don’t think it is real. But if I don’t talk about it, then people think I’m an idiot, but if I do talk about it, I’m an idiot because I don’t think it’s real,'” he says. “And you end up in kind of a loop.”

Reporters would rather report on something that’s wrong than not report on it at all, Palca said.

So what’s going to be the next big science news? Palca cited CRISPR, a new genome engineering technique focusing on the CAS9 protein (Nature, 2013).

“Well, just remember that word,” Palca said. “CRISPR. CAS9. And then in a couple of years from now when you read about it in a newspaper, you’ll say, ‘Joe Palca said that was going to win the Nobel Prize.'”


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