Science Bloggers v. Science Journalists: first thoughts

Courtesy of Bora, or perhaps courtesy of what was apparently a less then edifying round of bloggingheadstv*, there is another round of “who needs science journalists” sprung up in and around the Science Blogs community.

There is a lot of material here, an assault on a very broad front (or perhaps to mix military metaphors a bit, enough here to supply assaults on all  five Normandy beaches).  So I’m going to try the experiment — for this blog — of responding in bits rather than try and match Bora’s own heroic effort to encompass the full range of what evoked his rare ire.

In any event, I’m going to start on the periphery of this wrangle, with a look at Greg Laden’s journalistic ethics exercise.  In this post Laden makes a preliminary plea to his fellow scientists to note the difference in scientific cultures, in the practice, habits and rhetoric of different disciplines within the meta-discipline called science.  He writes,

You’ll notice that I also treat papers in anthropology, in particular human evolution, human paleoanthropology, and archaeology. But what you have not seen much of is archaeology outside of the human origins area. This is not because I don’t find this interesting, or am not trained in that area. Rather, this is because it is hard to do. I have a paper by a colleague, Tom Huffman, sitting on my desktop right now waiting for my attention, to turn it into a BPRR post, but it is proving to be quite difficult because of the nature of the research Tom reports and the way it is written up.

This is not because Tom did a bad job. No, he did a great job. It is rather because this area of archaeology … as is the case with a number of areas of science … is in fact NOT treated in the literature as Coturnix has suggested for science in general. It is not the case that these research results are written up in the standard scientific form or that they even follow a coherent form within the subfields.

This distinctiveness is true in a lot of other ways as well.…Elsewhere (but I’m not going to bother to run this down and cite it) I’ve seen similarly dumb statements about science that can only be seen as based on the belief that all science is done in a lab, as though there were no field scientists.

Word.  What Greg says is exactly right, and is in my experience routinely missed by many working scientists.

But while Greg tries to educate his colleagues to the significance of the fact that a physicist thinks, acts and speaks very differently from an archaeologist, he ignores the fact that writers about science for the public manifest a similar range of species.  Instead, he asserts a blanket claim:  it is unethical for journalists to check material selectively, with only one source for a story; whereas faced with an analagous ambiguity, a scientist is ethically obligated to pursue the issue to some kind of a resolution.

This is really a Hollywood notion of the practice of journalism.  It is notionally true if you are a daily journalist writing for a newspaper, wire service, or perhaps the science news division of a radio or television broadcast.  (Please note that these are all endangered populations.)  It is often honored in the breach, being a rule designed to prevent the targets of journalistic investigation from having too many chances to shape a story to their ends.  I have known plenty of  science beat people who have checked specific questions back with one source or another.

It is not true for magazine writers — fact checkers exist in part to check the accuracy of exactly this kind of thing if the writer misses the error, and in any event longer form journalism demands a built in checking process.  One may draw certain lines; many people do not send text to sources, though I have occasionally e-mailed particularly vexing passages (an explanation of an adaptive optics idea to Roger Angel, for one more or less recent example). But going back for second round questions on a selective basis?  Of course.  Happens all the time, and there is nothing unethical about it.  (Think for a moment:  does The New Yorker care, e.g. whether or not both Michael Oppenheimer and Stephen Schneider got to clear up a misapprehension about the significance of grid sizes in climate modeling over history?  No it does not, as long as the finished story gets the idea and its importance correct.)

It is not true at all for science documentarians.  When I have gotten stuck in to the final stages of writing a NOVA script you can be sure that I checked every claim of fact and any interpretation of which I was not sure with one, usually more sources, some in the program some not, and this is a common practice.

And so on.  Bloggers tend not to check in the same way, for at least one obvious reason:  the real time and comment features provide post-hoc correctives. The significance of this should now be obvious:  time frames dictate the meticulousness and methods of ensuring accuracy.  The shorter the deadline and the more ephemeral the form, the less rigorous the checking process.

That said, you don’t want to get stuff wrong in any form.  I remember every error and still wake up at night over them — particularly a particularly careless, stupid, and annoyingly trivial error committed….wait for it…24 years ago.  (I filled a dry lake with water in print.  Oy.)

And this brings me to the last thought of this stage of my response to Bora’s provocation.  The folks within the Science Blogs community — commenters more than the names at the top of the columns, I think — see science journalists and science writers as either the enemy, active, intention-filled obstacles to communicating the beauties and truths of science to the public; or as mere roadblocks, too incompentent to know their own uselessness.  Well, fifty percent of both researchers and writers are below average, to be sure, but pace the most often misquoted, science writers are the least of the problem.

Instead, it is vanishing venues first and foremost; with that loss comes the evaporation of specialized beat staff (science reporters may evoke occasional heartburn, but try the city-hall hack, trying his or her best to get up to speed on a story some PR person at a university has just announced is the next best thing to a cure for piles, and feel not disdain, but sympathy); picking up on that parenthetical, it’s the consequence of the fact that science writ large is a multi-multi-billion dollar enterprise and there are many more road blocks in the way of a platonically perfect story than the competence of the reporter:  the interests of the parties to a story may (often) conflict, and accuracy becomes a much more elusive ideal when that is so.

That’s a separate issue from the core of Bora’s and Laden’s concerns in these posts, so I’ll save what thoughts I could have on that score for a different post.  But if I were to try to sum up this post whilst standing on one leg it would be that the varieties of writers are as distinctive as those of scientists, and it is important to understand the specific constraints of the culture of particular writer with whom one deals.  At a minimum: know your reporter’s deadline.  That will tell you the degree with which you need to check with the reporter on the first call to see if they’ve understood what you are trying to tell them.

*I qualify my description of the offending BHTV episode because I never, ever watch BHTV.  I find it the worst of all worlds:  the production values of home movies; the story structure of a freshman bull session; and the relentless linearity of broadcast delivered in a medium that lives and dies by random access.  Life is too short.

Image:  a page of Galileo’s notes from January, 1610 that would form some of the material for one of the first pieces of popular science writing, Sidereus Nuncius.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, blogospheric tail chasing, good public communication of science, journalism, Journalism and its discontents, science writing, Uncategorized

2 Comments on “Science Bloggers v. Science Journalists: first thoughts”

  1. Josh Says:

    Keep up the great work – excitement renewed.

  2. wds Says:

    I think fifty percent of writers and researchers are below median, not average. Though it can be assumed that they are somewhat symmetrically distributed.

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