This dissertation seeks to understand why and how journalists use preprints, or research studies that are publicly available but have not yet been peer reviewed. Scholars post preprints to provide free, rapid access to their research—a practice that increased dramatically during the urgency of COVID-19 pandemic. Although journalists have historically been discouraged from reporting on preprints, media coverage mentioning these unreviewed studies became common during the early months of the crisis. Through an integrative, multistage mixed method approach, this dissertation investigates the degree to which the coverage of preprints seen during the pandemic represents a departure from, or extension of, journalists' established practices for reporting on peer reviewed research. It does so using a theoretical framework of post-normal science communication—defined as the novel communication practices that can emerge in contexts where scientific uncertainty is high, values are in dispute, the need for decision making is urgent, and much is at stake. It finds that journalists have used preprints at least occasionally for years, but that COVID-19 rapidly accelerated this use. Journalists are motivated to use preprints because of their timeliness, relevance, and accessibility, but are concerned about their potential to spread misinformation. They actively seek out preprints but also discover them passively through press releases and interviews with researchers. They struggle to verify them, relying on a mix of gut instinct, triangulation with other evidence, skeptical reading, and interviews with unaffiliated scientists—a practice they describe as their "own peer review." Journalists say that it is important to communicate the unvetted nature of preprints in their coverage but do so inconsistently in practice. Instead, preprints are often described in vague terms, as "research" or "data," or referred to using only an uncontextualized hyperlink. Collectively, these results suggest that the preprint-based coverage seen during the pandemic represents a form of semi-post-normal science communication—a mix of tried and tested strategies and novel practices that have the potential to become established journalistic norms.
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Thesis advisor: Pablo, Alperin, Juan
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