Wikinews:Water cooler/policy

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Policies and guidelines and the Style guide contain or link to most of the current en.Wikinews policies and guidelines, however policy is based on the accepted practices of the day on Wikinews, often these might not be written down. This section of the Water cooler focuses on discussions regarding policy issues.

You may wish to check the archives to see if a subject has been raised previously.


What is freshness and how should we apply that standard to science news?[edit]

What is freshness? What does it do for the reader?

I feel that if we answer this question, we can come up with a rule of thumb that will help us assess the freshness of science news. My take is that while the two-day limit works great for politics, sports and other current events, a lot of perfectly fresh science news gets excluded just because of the way the publication process works.

On one of the first science articles I wrote for Wikinews, the reviewer said "Hey, this study was performed last year, so it's not fresh." The study had indeed been performed months earlier but it had been published more recently. We ended up using publication of the study as the focal event. For science, this is normal. Peer review takes time. Many scientists keep their work a secret until publication. They're worried about being scooped by rival labs or turned down by journals who won't bother publishing something that people already know about. There's another lag between publication in for-scientist journals and the mainstream newspapers, magazines and websites that we need for independent corroboration. Here's an example about a new discovery about nuclear fusion:

  1. Scientists collect data through September 2016 but don't get to analyze it until early 2017, at which point they identify some nuclear fusion reactor fuel that works ten times as well as anything before. Eureka, clean energy!
  2. Nature Physics publishes the study June 19, 2017.
  3. Popular Mechanics and other mainstream outlets write about it around August 28, 2017.

The important thing, the actual news, was the discovery in early 2017. But these findings could not have been published on Wikinews because the study and independent corroboration were published more than two days apart. This gap is unusually wide, but mainstream outlets routinely write about studies published the previous week or month. They don't think that these scientific findings are too old to write about. What we need to know is why not and whether those standards could be adapted for use on Wikinews.

Has anyone here worked in news on a professional level or gone to journalism school? What standards could mainstream outlets be using and is there a good way to adapt them for our use?

@Pi zero: and @Acagastya: have also spoken on this issue and I'd like to invite both of them to summarize their views for new contributors. Darkfrog24 (talk) 13:29, 1 September 2017 (UTC)

while there is no clear policy about "three day" freshness rule, it has been the trend. I would cut down to 48 actual hours, if I could. But until then, the focal point of any scientific article is when was the study/discovery announced. The clock won't stop ticking. If you have to write, write and get it published within three days of that happening. Anything else is not welcomed.
acagastya PING ME! 13:56, 1 September 2017 (UTC)
@Darkfrog24: All kinds of event don't become news until well after they happen. E.g. a political scandal occurs but is covered up: the news event is it being uncovered. —Justin (koavf)TCM 15:25, 1 September 2017 (UTC)
This is all good and lively discussion. But: start with our policies first. Read them clearly and see if that helps. As Pi Zero likes to say: We focus on discrete news EVENTS here. Focus on that word: 'Events'. I love science. I love scholarly journals.....always have. But keep it simple: What is your source? Is it reputable? When did they report the 'story'? 'The Journal of Unicorn Psychiatry published an article on the use of anti-psychotics for rainbow loving horses on <yesterday>.' That's fresh, focused on a discrete event. The PUBLISHING OF THE STORY is the event.....(not automatically newsworthy, but it might be). Again:What is your source? When did the event happen -- and how does that plug into when the article was published? Yes....we love to focus on THE EVENT here....and that's great. But the 'tallying up of the findings' might've happened 7 months ago. In most instances, that can be OK.....but you have to focus your writing on THE EVENT. I often ask myself here: what is the event? When did it happen? Is that event unto itself newsworthy? With OR, we're known to give an extra inch here and there time-wise, but just only. Hope this helps. --Bddpaux (talk) 17:02, 1 September 2017 (UTC)
I haven't run into any cases of people considering the scholarly journals, Eurekalert or mainstream sources unreliable for science news, so we can probably skip that issue.
Interesting point, Bddpaux. Thing is, "the event is the announcement" feels like a workaround we came up with to avoid having to write a freshness rule just for science, and now that you point it out to me, I realize the reviewers don't treat the announcement as the event. The meat of the articles I've written has almost always been the discovery itself. The article isn't "this research was announced and people who didn't already know about it went 'wow'/'oh no'/other" or "Discovery X was announced at Conference Y and the audience made reaction Z." Instead, I write, "this research was announced and here's what it was, who did it and why it matters." Contrast: When Deep Throat announced his real identity, the articles about it focused on "a big secret has been revealed just now and here's how people are reacting to it," NOT "an informant told Woodward and Bernstein about President Nixon."
No reviewer has ever rejected one of my science articles on the basis of "this focuses on the research itself instead of the announcement." I've gotten objections for not mentioning the announcement, but that's not the same thing. Darkfrog24 (talk) 19:17, 1 September 2017 (UTC)
There appears to be some misunderstanding. Reviewers certainly do treat the announcement as the focal event. That's what I see Bddpaux saying. And if your article is rejected for not mentioning the announcement, the reason that's a problem is because it leaves the article without a specific fresh focus. --Pi zero (talk) 20:41, 1 September 2017 (UTC)
Terminology aside, I've been writing articles that are about research and merely mention the announcement. Wikinews articles about things other than science usually don't do that. The real focus of the article, which I've called the meat, is almost always something that didn't happen that long ago. A science article about a recently published study about research completed six months back doesn't seem to check anyone's "no" box on Wikinews. Can you put words to why not?
I'm also trying to work out why National Geographic and newspapers keep writing an articles that lack the "specific fresh focus" as you've defined it, and no one tells them "That isn't news." Darkfrog24 (talk) 01:26, 2 September 2017 (UTC)

No, obituaries are similar to it. Except for the tributes (that too, not always), every single thing of that article is what that person did months, years or probably decades ago. And why we are not telling them it isn't news? A) NatGeo hasn't established themselves as dedicated news organisation and B) I don't work for them or read those articles to tell them. If it were The Independent, I tweet them why is some shit they have published, newsworthy? But they don't care. And I ended up unfollowing them.
acagastya PING ME! 01:35, 2 September 2017 (UTC) And by the way, telling when the specific story happened would be the first thing one learns in journalism course. If a news article's first para reads "Frogs are not exactly the cultural exemplars of good looks, as the famous fairy tale, The Frog Prince, reminds us. But the newly discovered Nasikabatrachus bhupathi could set the bar a couple of notches lower – or higher — depending on your aesthetic sensibility.", the organisation is a mediocre news organisation, (yes, The Hindu, the only advantage you have is the other Indian news orgs are worse than you) and the author is an idiot.
acagastya PING ME! 01:43, 2 September 2017 (UTC)

In the car this morning, I finally thought of the word I need to use: patch. It's not a cheat; it's not lip service; using the date of journal publication reminds me of a temporary, somewhat artificial way of connecting two things. Acagastya is referring to the article about some purple frogs that I drafted recently. It was also subject to the timing problem, but the reviewer had other things to say as well that don't have to do with the freshness-in-science-news issue. Acagastya, do you want me to find a better example? Say an article in a major newspaper about a study published more than a few days earlier. Darkfrog24 (talk) 01:58, 3 September 2017 (UTC)

Fresh is 'less than 2-3 days ago'. For science, time of publication is OK as a focal event in my experience. For an interview, it is within 2-3 days of the last interview question being answered, for me personally, as this is when I start to prepare the article on-wiki (I didn't confirm this with anyone). What are other difficult cases? --Gryllida (talk, chat) 02:40, 3 September 2017 (UTC)

@Gryllida: OR can be a very different case, if its original element is substantial enough, and full-blown interviews are a case in point. Usually an interview would last much longer than 2–3 days after the last question is answered. We've never had so very many interviews published long after the event as to form specific standards, but the one time I can remember an interview going stale, as such, the call was made by the interviewer about a month after the interview had concluded (I honestly don't remember what the hold-up was that made it so late). The most important date is when public revelation takes place, and serious OR is to start with something only we have, so — up to a point — OR carries its own event with it: our date of publication is the date of public revelation freshness. After a while, secondary effects, perhaps related broadly to relevance, build up enough to affect freshness, but in most cases that takes a lot more than 2-3 days to reach a critical level. --Pi zero (talk) 11:40, 3 September 2017 (UTC)
your argument can not be based on what other media is doing. BRS's one of the original reports focused on how British media broke a rule by posting photos of victim/accused online, and the jury came to know about it. We don't follow them. Other websites paywall their content, mislead the readers, show advertisements, gives opinions, adds bias, publishes wardrobe malfunction, telecast what is trending on Facebook, or show how to use Google Maps, they even publish what UK's queen eats. These things would never find a place on Wikinews.
acagastya PING ME! 06:24, 3 September 2017 (UTC)

I hadn't discussed this issue for a while until now. I found the freshness less clear yet too enforced. As a result, very little has gotten published. August of this year has gotten a little bit slower than of last year. Same for July of this year and of last year. I could create more articles. There have been several articles awaiting reviews yet with less than a few active reviewers. However, I can do so most likely when there are no articles under development and/or review. I don't want to burden reviewers with too many articles, do I? --George Ho (talk) 07:51, 3 September 2017 (UTC)

I have some thoughts on this. Science news is a little bit different from regular news because the initial study/results and the replication of that research might be years or decades apart, but they are not independent events. They are the same news story, just spread out over vast amounts of time. Normal news - even something like a hurricane - is driven by an initial event, and then updates to that event. Those can all be independent articles that reference each other.
Science news doesn't allow for that traditional approach, which is why no one *uses* that traditional approach on science news. Instead, organizations write multiple almost identical articles on the same science event, separated by significant amounts of time. Usually they'll write an article about the rumour that the research is happening (if it's interesting or controversial enough to warrant that of course), then an article when the white paper on a piece of research is released, then another similar article on the journal article, then another similar article about public reaction (if applicable), then a series of similar articles about replication research (if this happens, which sometimes it doesn't). These articles are spread out over enormous amounts of time, and don't deal with new events, but rather with the veeeeerrrrryyyyy, veeeeerrrrrryyyyy, slllooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwww progression of a single piece of research from start to finish. There is no "new news" by traditional standards for those articles, they're just reporting on the current status of the glacially paced research. It's kind of like you're writing an article on someone walking through a time dilation field. Having a new article every month saying "they took another step" wouldn't be "new news", or even much of an update, it would just be reporting on the progress of a slow moving person crossing a room.
That's why everyone reports on science news with a different standard of "new". Glacial. Pace. Of. Progress.
(A good example of this in practice is the green energy and transportation news website Electrek, which will write tons of articles about different parts of the same event (or even news conference), with each article focusing on a different specific detail, and linking to the others.) — Gopher65talk 17:28, 3 September 2017 (UTC)
@Gryllida: less than 2-3 days ago
Yes, but the question is "What is happening in those three days?" I've seen a couple people say "X number of days is too old," but 1) the mainstream newspapers don't seem to think that makes a science article too old to publish and 2) If we figure out what freshness is qualitatively, we might be able to find a rule that works better for science news. If it's that "2-3 days is how long it takes for most people to have already heard about it," then we could still write about a scientific discovery that was published more than 3 days ago if it hadn't had any mainstream buzz yet.
So I'm asking what freshness feels like to you. What does it do for you? What makes a one-day-old article good and three-day-old one crummy?
Acagastya makes a good point in that we might find that the criteria used by other publications/tailored to science does not suit Wikinews' needs, but we should still try to define those needs.
@Gopher65: Do you think that Wikinews shouldn't write about science news, should accept that it will publish less science news than other venues (what we're doing now and it's not like that's the end of the world), or that we should work something out so we can publish more science news than we are now? Darkfrog24 (talk) 15:55, 4 September 2017 (UTC)
I see that Pi Zero made another good point: The most important date is when public revelation takes place
But just because a study was published in a professional journal doesn't mean the public knows about it. Any member of the public might be able to access it if they already knew it was there, but that's not the same thing. (Think Arthur Dent having to get past a "beware of jaguar" sign to find the city plans about his house being demolished.) Darkfrog24 (talk) 15:59, 4 September 2017 (UTC)
There are two points you raised:
  • 1. "Should we write science news: Wikinews should write science news, but it should create a different standard for that news than that which is applied to celebrity gossip or ambulance chasing disaster stories. Those are a different category of reporting, and should be treated as such (I think that everyone should do this, not just Wikinews).
  • 2. "The most important date is when public revelation takes place" <------- that's a big part of the problem with the way science journalism has been done since the collapse of traditional print media. Non-science journalists take a break from their gossip columns (you know, the ones that actually make money for their bosses like "Use These 10 Tricks to BECOME a Better Lover!") and write a science piece. And given the training they've had, and what little time they have to work with, they often do not too bad a job. The issue is that science is a rolling, iterative process. That preliminary study is useless without the context of all the other research being done in the same field. You can't just report "Coffee causes/prevents cancer!" as the conclusion to a study, because that single study is but one data point, and unimportant by itself. You cannot draw conclusions from one study. And given that a p-value of 0.05 (95% confidence rate) is the standard for publication in most research journals, even a quick glance at this issue will tell you that 1/20 studies will automatically give a false positive. (It's actually much worse that that, which is nicely put into words by this physicist/youtuber: "Is Most Published Research Wrong?". Another amusing (though more simplistic) look at this problem comes from xkcd: Significant.)
Standard news publishes one story about each update. But that doesn't work well for science news, because of the timescales of a topic of research. Each study is a single datapoint in a best fit line on research. If you publish a story about each interesting result, you get the problem seen in the xkcd comic I linked above: lots and lots of false articles that are published only because the journalist doesn't have a ****ing clue what is actually going on. No retractions are ever published (because the story was "true"), and you end up with a slew of inaccurate or outright incorrect articles polluting Google Search results, filling the head of the public at large with crap that isn't true. But it's "science" as far as they're concerned, so they believe whatever they were inclined to believe in the first place.
There are several alternatives:
  • 1. Write a series of articles (and make clear that you're writing a series of articles) about a single topic. Because of the fluid nature of community driven new sites (like us), this is very difficult. Contributors come and leave all the time, so how do you make sure a series of articles happens?
  • 2. Wait until replication research is done before publishing a controversial result. This can take months, or even years, but it saves you from the issues listed above.
There are others, but I can't think of them right now;). — Gopher65talk 00:23, 5 September 2017 (UTC)
@Gopher65: Wow that is a lot of thought into this. Do your two alternatives apply to what you think pro journalists should do or to what you think we should do?
I've been dancing around it but I'll state it explicitly: I don't scour the professional journals looking for things that would make good Wikinews articles. Instead, I look for press releases and mainstream news outlets that cover them (which, since we need independent corroboration, I'd have to do anyway). That means I don't find out about most of these discoveries right away either. Darkfrog24 (talk) 20:59, 8 September 2017 (UTC)