Thursday, March 19, 2009

Science Journalism in Decline

 
There's an editorial in Nature this week on science journalism [Filling the Void]. It's not very interesting.

There's an article by Geoff Brumfiel that's much more interesting [Science journalism: Supplanting the old media?]. Since I'm mentioned in that article, and since I can't comment on their site, I thought I'd make a few comments here.

First, I posted a comment on Chris Mooney's blog where I said, "Most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it." What I meant to say was, "Most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better off without it". I just want there to be a correct version that everyone can quote.

The article correctly points to a trend ...
Traditional journalists are increasingly looking to such sites to find story ideas (see 'Rise of the blogs'). At the same time, they rely heavily on the public-relations departments of scientific organizations. As newspapers employ fewer people with science-writing backgrounds, these press offices are employing more. Whether directly or indirectly, scientists and the institutions at which they work are having more influence than ever over what the public reads about their work.
Over the past decade it has been the "professional" science journalists themselves who were the gullible victims of scientific hype and PR. The scientific accuracy of press releases leaves a great deal to be desired. They are, after all, intended to promote the researcher and the institution. They are heavily biased.

It is not a good thing that individual scientists and their institutions are managing the science news. It's a disaster.
The amount of material being made available to the public by scientists and their institutions means that "from the pure standpoint of communicating science to the general public, we're in a kind of golden age", says Robert Lee Hotz, a science journalist for The Wall Street Journal. But that pure standpoint is not, or should not be, all that there is to media coverage of science. Hotz doubts that blogs can fulfil the additional roles of watchdog and critic that the traditional media at their best aim to fulfil. That sort of work seems to be on its way out. "Independent science coverage is not just endangered, it's dying," he says.
I hear this a lot. Science journalists seem to think that they have served as watchdogs and science critics by tempering the hype and propaganda spewed out by institutional PR departments.

I wish it were true. If science journalists really did their job of separating the wheat from the chaff then I would be their biggest cheerleader. Instead, for the most part they have been completely seduced by the lure of scientific breakthroughs and revolutions promoted by self-serving scientists and their institutions. There are notable exceptions, but the majority of science journalists have failed at the one job they are supposed to do better than non-science journalists.

That's why we would be better off without them.

Coincidentally, Ryan Gregory has just posted an article about Scitable, "A Collaborative Learning Space for Science" hosted by Nature magazine. I'm pretty sure that Nature is proud of this site. They think the articles are good examples of science writing.

Ryan highlights an article by Leslie Pray, a free-lance science writer. The title is: Transposons, or Jumping Genes: Not Junk DNA?. Read what Ryan Gregory has to say at Scitable Again. He thinks the article is "total nonsense." I agree with him.

If this is an indication of the ability of science journalists to cut to the chase and give us the straight dope, then it's no wonder that scientists are skeptical.


20 comments :

  1. What I meant to say was, "Most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better off without it". I just want there to be a correct version that everyone can quote.

    The article correctly points to a tend ...


    Or perhaps even to a trend ... :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Larry, the problem as I see it is that for better or worse, laymen still get most of their science from science journalism in the mainstream media. Do you have an alternative source that will reach so many people? If not, the criticism does not solve the problem. Clearly blogs and websites won't do. Your opinion seems to be that since the system is rotten, let us throw it away. I empathize with your views about scientific accuracy, but throwing science journalism away does not solve the problem of reaching the common man and educating him about science. So instead of throwing it away, why don't we try and suggest solutions to fix it? Sure, bad science is sometimes worse than no science at all, but does the choice really need to be binary? Just a sincere question.

    ReplyDelete
  3. And here's an example from the National Geographic, commented on by Ed Brayton.

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2009/03/bad_science_reporting_from_nat.php
    #commentsArea

    Guess what, Prof. Morans' pal Chris Mooney has a comment whining about the criticism.

    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2009/03/dont_bash_bad_science_reportin.php
    #commentsArea

    ReplyDelete
  4. @wavefunction
    "Your opinion seems to be that since the system is rotten, let us throw it away"

    This really misses the crux of the issue. It's not about throwing the system out. The system is already well on its way out (many have already called it dead).

    Science journalism can't just be "fixed" the entire model doesn't work anymore. Science blogs are here to stay. It's true that they don't have the reach of the MSM. But that doesn't stop blogs from pushing the non science-trained journalists out the door. Science sections are already being axed.

    So the questions is: how do we as scientists make sure the true message of science reaches the public (regardless of the medium).

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't doubt science blogs are here to stay (I have been writing one for almost five years now). But the question still stands; how could science blogs reach the same number of viewers that the NYT science section reaches? I completely understand the criticism of science journalism voiced on this blog and others, but do we have an alternative form of science journalism that would reach so many people? If so, wouldn't it still make sense to keep pushing for preserving good sci jour in the MSM unless we have better mass alternative?

    ReplyDelete
  6. I went to school hoping to become a science journalist** (took a few grad courses to that effect). So it largely breaks my heart to see the field in this state.

    The trends we see in science journalism aren't unique though ... it's just an example of the broader trend in "news" these days. Rather than news organizations that are objective and critical, we have an abundance of "flavored" news outlets ... pick your worldview, then pick the "news" outlet that matches.

    Couple that with the fact that no one wants to pay for / fund journalism, and frankly, we're screwed. I honestly don't trust the blogosphere on its own to provide the public with the news because that requires that all readers have a very good critical eye and be able to identify red flags for things that need fact checked. And that's not a dig against my fellow people (necessarily), but given the amount of information available, it becomes a serious investment of time and mental energy just to discern the news.

    So I offer no solutions, and I'm pretty much just moping about it at this point.

    **I'm no longer employed as a journalist. Man cannot live on peanuts alone.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Amanda says,

    I honestly don't trust the blogosphere on its own to provide the public with the news because that requires that all readers have a very good critical eye and be able to identify red flags for things that need fact checked. And that's not a dig against my fellow people (necessarily), but given the amount of information available, it becomes a serious investment of time and mental energy just to discern the news.

    I agree with you. Average blogs will never replace good journalism.

    What we need is high quality science journalists who know how to accurately report science and make it understandable to the general public.

    Science journalists have failed to do this for decades and yet they continue to live in some kind of dream world where the majority of them think they're doing a good job.

    There doomed unless they shape up and fix their own profession instead of telling us how good they are.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think a majority of lay people really don't care about science. They mistrust science because they keep hearing different opinions about things that affect their lives.
    For instance, one week they are told that some item is beneficial to your heart. The next week they hear that same item may raise cancer risk.
    If people are serious about learning something about a scientific theory, they'll look for a book by a scientist.
    We've seen journalism decline in all areas, not just in scientific fields. This has spurred such programs as "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" or Canada's "This Hour Has 22 Minutes".
    We don't trust journalists to give us anything worthwhile. As Amanda mentioned, journalists are looking for more than peanuts and that prize goes to those with the "best", most entertaining stories, not necessarily the most accurate.
    Most newspapers still carry astrology columns and this is about as "scientific" as those papers get. (Astrology being completely unscientific.)
    When you're a scientist, interested in finding answers to important questions about the universe and life on this planet, you tend to think the rest of humankind is as interested. Unfortunately they are not. Most just want to keep their jobs making enough money to keep beer or milk in the fridge, and have some spare time to go snowmobiling or shopping on the weekend.
    At least this is what I'm seeing from my lay person point of view.
    Sorry. I love science, but most of my friends/enemies couldn't care less. I prefer books by scientists. And I'm looking into blogs to see if there are some scientists online with something to offer as well. Not at all interested in what "science journalists" have to write.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Just thought, I should not have spoken for scientists. I was speculating what scientists "tend to think" about the rest of us. Maybe you don't. ?????

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm not sure that science journalism is any worse off than any other part of the media. Journalism has always been subsidized.

    In other words: whether or not you want science journalism to die, as long as there are people interested in science, there will be people who are trained to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. Will that be scientists? I doubt it -- I'd rather they were actually doing science -- and journalism, whatever else you think of it, is a time-consuming enterprise.

    In other words, here's another idea: instead of throwing stones, why not find a way to helpfully bridge the gap? Wouldn't a more functional approach be to - gasp - open up a dialogue with science journalists, to see if their gaffes can't be rectified. Indeed, if the blogosphere is to act as science journalism's ombudsperson, why not integrate that into the process itself?

    That, I think, is up to the professionals to implement... a sort of 'peer review' on the products of science journalists, incorporated into their articles, itself -- which should be dynamic and incorporate corrections, anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I used to like some of what you had on this website, Larry, but now you've gone too far with your over-the-top criticism of some truly excellent writers. It's a shame that you (and some of your other blogging colleagues) hide behind your blogs and don't directly contact the people you criticize, before criticizing them, not just out of respect but also as a more constructive effort to have some healthy, forward-moving dialogue. This is nauseous mud-slinging at its best.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Anonymous says,

    This is nauseous mud-slinging at its best.

    Would you care to point out the parts where I'm wrong?

    ReplyDelete
  13. Wouldn't a more functional approach be to - gasp - open up a dialogue with science journalists, to see if their gaffes can't be rectified.

    That's exactly what I'm doing.

    There's all kinds of good science on the blogs. All the science journalists have to do is check it out before they start writing.

    Let's take Leslie Pray's article as an example. There are many postings about transposons and junk DNA that she could have consulted. She didn't have to believe them but they should have at least given her some clues about things that might be controversial.

    One of my primary motivations for blogging is to inform the science journalists. Over on the left-hand sidebar I have links to a number of articles that they might find useful.

    I've been to four difference conferences with science journalists. As a general rule, they deny there's a problem.

    ReplyDelete
  14. You're joking, I hope. Who in their right mind would go to a blog for information? Peer review may have its problems, but it is a much more credible source of accurate information than what most of you blogging scientists appear to gbe spewing out from your breakfast nooks on Sunday mornings.

    BTW, you probably shouldn't be using that article or website as examples of science journalism. Scitable is an undergraduate education website. I don't think the authors are journalists. Most of them aren't anyway. Scitable isn't journalism. It's like an online textbook. The goal is to get kids excited about science (without turning them off from the get-go and delving into all the annoying debates that permeate practically every scientific issue and that most people not doing the actual arguing don't care about).

    ReplyDelete
  15. Nature's mission with Scitable is so obvious--and it's quite perplexing that you don't see it. Gen Y is so far disengaged in science that it's about time someone did something to bring them back to it. Even if it is, in your eyes "dumbing" down the language. I think this is the best way to get people to actually READ and not scan the information. AND UNDERSTAND it. Scitable is a brilliant idea. Who says you have to be a genius to enjoy learning about science!

    ReplyDelete
  16. anonymous says,

    Even if it is, in your eyes "dumbing" down the language.

    It's not a question of "dumbing down." It's just plain dumb (i.e. incorrect).

    ReplyDelete
  17. We had a post on this recently: Do we need Science Journalists?

    So summarize in brief: Science Journalism fulfils functions that professional scientists don't and won't fulfil. Its role might change, but it will stay. Read also comments to above post.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Good article on journalism on Salon.com today.

    http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2009/04/13/nonprofit_journalism/?source=newsletter

    ReplyDelete
  19. Good article on journalism I really appreciate it..!

    ReplyDelete