Good comments from James Annan that are both spot on and completely useless, I think, regarding what journalists should do with the latest hot results from Science and Nature:
I think the golden rule to remember is that a new item of research, even if it’s appeared in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, is not in itself a new “truth” about the world. It is only the current opinion of a couple of researchers working in a particular area. It’s always worth bearing in mind that the researchers themselves might change their minds in a few months and even if they don’t, it is quite possible that the rest of the scientific community will decide they are talking nonsense and either criticise or (what is perhaps worse) ignore the study.
The obvious implication is that I should ignore the hot new paper that everyone’s talking about, and wait a couple of years to see how well it holds up in the long run. It would also be in the best interest of the trees if they’d all agree to stay short and didn’t have to waste all that energy on a big long trunk. But as soon as one grows a bit taller, it shades out the others, they die, and only trees with grow-tall genes make it through to the next round.
It would be helpful to the whole discussion, I think, if the big journals wouldn’t publish splashy papers that contain small results, like the Bryden and methane papers. Those two papers are interesting examples of the problem – interesting and suggestive results with a lot more research needed to flesh out the details. We journalists seem incapable of distinguishing between such papers and the much more broad and solidified results. (Consider this an invitation to you climate science types in the audience to suggest a recent Science or Nature paper that meets this second criterion – or else argue that there really are no such things?)