Yesterday I criticized the cover of the latest issue of New Scientist [Darwin Was Wrong?]. There's a good discussion going on at EvolutionBlog [The Trouble With Science Journalism].
I pointed out that the cover was, "an egregious example of journalistic hype and it's unacceptable in a magazine like New Scientist." I also mentioned that the article itself, written by Graham Lawton, contained some interesting—and mostly correct—information about the early history of life.
Graham Lawton posted a comment to my earlier posting where he critized Sandwalk readers because they (we?), "lack a fundamental understanding of how the media works." He was asked to explain. This is how Graham Lawton replied.
The way we work here is that the writer of the piece generally has almost no say over the headline, standfirst and other bits of "page furniture". These are the resonsibility of the copy editor and the sub-editors. The online version often has its own headline, which again is out of the control of the writer (in this case the magazine headline is "Uprooting Darwin's Tree").I, for one, am not surprised by this "revelation." I have known for some time that decisions on titles and covers are not made by authors. I've known for some time that decisions about titles and covers can be based on "sales pitch" and "hype" and that scientific accuracy can play a minor role in those decisions.
Coverlines, similarly, are written not by the writer but by senior editors with the express purpose of selling the magazine (the line between marketing and journalism blurs a little here).
As I'm a senior editor too, however, I can't and won't claim that the coverline was entirely beyond my control. Not my ultimate decision, but I was in on the discussions. We knew we were courting controversy but the feeling was that the story was solid enough to allow us to be provocative and, in any case, the statement is true.
So I feel very strong ownership of the article itself, particularly the print version (and I totally stand by the story, which is the product of weeks of hard work, extensive interviews with scientists, a stack of journal papers and much thought, despite what some bloggers are saying). I feel some ownership of the front cover "sell", though as always I'm acutely aware that it is 50% journalism, 50% sales pitch.
I'd like to thank Graham Lawton for explaining the process in case there are some people who still don't understand the basics.
The fact that I knew how covers were selected does not affect my criticism of the decision in spite of what Lawton might think. As a matter of fact, now that I know how he was involved as senior editor I can put some of the blame on him. The fact that he defends the cover title ("Darwin Was Wrong") by saying that, "... in any case, the statement is true" is revealing.
It's unusual for a science journalist to be so candid about the trade-off between scientific accuracy and "sales pitch."
As for the article itself, Graham Lawton is quite proud of it. He seems to be implying that the title of the article was not his fault, thereby shifting the blame somewhat to other editors. That position is not going to stand up to close examination of the article.
The first four paragraphs talk about Darwin and what he thought in 1837 and 1859 [Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life. It will be clear to every reader that this is not just ancient history, the strong implication is that up until recently most evolutionary biologists thought just like Darwin must have thought 150 years ago. They were stuck in the late nineteenth century Victorian mindset. That's why Lawton begins the next paragraph with, "For much of the past 150 years, biology has largely concerned itself with filling in the details of the tree."
That's nonsense, of course. There's a lot more that's been happening in evolutionary biology than just filling in the details of trees. Is it any wonder that the editors picked up on this false notion and created the headline "Darwin Was Wrong"? Graham Lawton, as author of the article, seems to be making exactly that point.
The article would have been much better if Darwin's name had never been mentioned. Darwin knew nothing about molecular evolution and he knew almost nothing about bacteria or the last common ancestor. Dragging Darwin's name into the article serves only to confuse the readers. It's probably another example of "sales pitch" designed to sell the magazine. It may not be only editors who are guilty.