National Geographic

Visions of the Crash

Fifteen years ago I got my first vision of the future: a pair of black holes, ringed by rainbows of fire, crashed into each other so violently they sent a tsunami through the fabric of space itself.

The vision did not come from angels or mushrooms. I was sitting at my desk, looking at the saucer-sized screen of a MacIIsi. I was not gazing at actual black holes, but a two-dimensional simulation. And it was not  the simulation that astonished me. I was stunned instead by the fact that my Mac was communicating with another computer 800 miles away.

A few days earlier, I had called Ed Seidel, a scientist then at the University of Illinois. I was going to write an article about his research on black holes. He had published a paper with stills from the simulation, and on the phone he tried to conjure the full movie for me. Words were failing him, and he wished I could just see it for myself. He asked if I could use the World Wide Web. I had no idea what he was talking about.

With Seidel’s help, I rigged up a 9600-baud modem at Discover, loaded a program called Mosaic on my computer, and then punched in his web site address. Even the letters http were mysterious to me. Underlined words appeared on the screen, which I realized were links. I could look at Seidel’s papers, his resume, even pictures of his family. And when I clicked on a link for the black holes, the movie slowly appeared on my screen, strip by strip.

As the black holes began to crash into each other, I knew I was seeing something new. But at the time, all I thought I was seeing was a new way for me to do research for stories. No more wasted hours photocopying journal articles at the library. I didn’t realize at the time that I was looking at a journalistic collision in the making, a collision between an old way for people to learn about science and a new way. It would take fifteen years or so before the two finally crashed.

—–

I’ve been thinking a lot about the crash recently, thanks in part to a couple of long phone calls. Geoff Brumfiel of Nature and Curtis Brainerd of the Columbia Journalism Review have published articles on the subject in the past week. During their research, they both called me to get my thoughts. I’m not very good at sound bites, which is a little sad given that I’m always on the hunt for the apt quote. In Brainerd’s piece, I sound a little stoned. On the phone with Brumfiel, I was apparently so hopeless that he had to turn me into a mute journalist, surrounded by lethally pithy bloggers:

“You get a press release that is slightly rehashed by somebody in the newsroom and it goes in the paper! It’s wrong, its sensationalist, it erodes the public trust in scientific endeavour,” says Bora Zivkovic, author of A Blog Around the Clock on ScienceBlogs and an online community manager for the Public Library of Science journals. Myers takes a similar view. “Newspapers realize that they can get their audience by peddling crap instead of real science,” he says. Not surprisingly, those who came to blogging from journalism — such as Carl Zimmer, who writes for a range of publications, including The New York Times, and blogs at Discover — tend to disagree. But Larry Moran, a biochemistry professor at the University of Toronto, Ontario, who blogs at Sandwalk, seemed to speak for many bloggers when he recently wrote “Most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of [sic] without it”.

Will we be without science journalism soon? Science writing as we’ve known it is certainly changing, and for those of us who do it for a living, some of the latest changes have been scary. CNN recently shut down its science, technology, environment and weather unit. The Boston Globe just stopped running its weekly science and health section. I recently wrote a couple articles for a magazine called Best Life, a men’s lifestyle magazine. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to write for a magazine like that at first, but I was pretty pleased to discover that they didn’t want me to shy away from the science of my stories, such as this one on aging. But I won’t be writing for Best Life any more: they just went belly up.

We science writers have been wailing and gnashing a lot, but I don’t think we should burden other people too much with our economic woes. We like to justify our work by saying it’s important for the public to understand science and to be kept up to date with scientific advances, as well as the ways science affects our lives. I agree that those things are important. But it’s not as if the Founding Fathers established a Federal Department of Science Writing to protect the public’s inalienable right to the stuff.

The science sections, science magazines, and other outlets we see around us today were set up as businesses. They got their start in a big boom in the late 1970s, when the post-Sputnik emphasis on science and the growing advertising for computers and other kinds of technology made publishing stories about science look like a good way to make money. Readers were hungry to learn about new developments in science, as well as the bad effects of some science, such as environmental damage from pollution.

A lot of those sections and magazines are gone now, but they were fading long before bloggers came on the scene. During the 1980s, a lot of science magazines bought each other up. Newspaper science sections have been dwindling ever since they reached a peak of 95 in 1989. By 2005, only 34 science sections were left. There are many reasons for the decline, I suspect. The magazine market got glutted, for example, and advertisers shifted some dollars away from science coverage.

Like all magazines, science magazines are facing some lean times. But I don’t think they face quite as scary a future as newspapers. The entire system by which newspapers used to make money has been knocked out from under them by people with names like Craig. It seems that when newspapers try to cut their costs, science sections are vulnerable. In other cases, the science reporters just end up on the street with everyone else.

But the disaster for any individual science writer may not be so bad for the person on the other end–the one reading about science. Twenty-five years ago, a reader who wanted to keep up with developments in science didn’t have much choice beyond the coverage in the local paper. But now it’s possible to read stories online from all over the world.

This change in technology, from paper to Internet, may mean that our collective hunger for news about science can be met by fewer science writers. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a demand for good local science writing–a demand that will come from both local and international audiences. But the precise number of science writers left in 10 years will not be decided by a technocrat at the National Science Foundation.

—–

The rise of blogs about science has brought me many pleasures. I’ve particularly liked the astringent criticism of bad science journalism. As soon as a piece is published, scientists who know the lot about the subject can, if necessary, rip a journalist a new one. I personally have been very influenced by Mark Liberman, a linguist at Penn, who has time and again shown how important it is for reporters to pay attention to the statistics in science. What seems at first like stark results–like the difference between the male and female brain–can melt away if you look at the actual data.

But some bloggers go a step further. They claim that these individual cases of journalistic misconduct add up to an indictment of the whole business. Hence, as Moran declares, we can live without science journalists.

It’s odd that many of the people making these pronouncements are scientists themselves–people, in other words, who know that you don’t do science by anecdote. If a blogger sits down in the morning and reads ten stories in a newspaper’s science section and notices that one that makes a howler of a mistake, you know what that blogger will be writing about. Blogs are an outlet for righteous fury. Bloggers are much less likely to write a post that begins, “I read nine articles this morning about science that were fairly accurate and pretty well written.” Ho hum.

The judgment you find in blogs is not just incomplete. It doesn’t even add up to a coherent picture. Take, for example, a recent righteous rant from Ben Goldacre, a British doctor who writes the blog Bad Science. Goldacre is doing fabulous work on his blog, taking on irresponsible sensationalism and misinformation about vaccines, quack medicine, and other offenses. His guns are blazing particularly hot in a recent post about some awful reporting on recent studies on prostate cancer. He concludes with this sweeping condemnation of our trade:

Journalists insist that we need professionals to mediate and explain science. From today’s story, their self belief seems truly laughable.

You’d be forgiven if you read this passage and got an image of all journalists on Earth spontaneously bursting into flame in punishment for their laughable self-importance. But Goldacre is actually only attacking British journalists. To show how badly our British colleagues botched this story, Goldacre contrasts their work to the accurate coverage in American newspapers. Why we American writers possess the powers to see the real story while British reporters are putting themselves out of business Goldacre fails to explain. For whatever reason, British science writers = bad; American science writers = good.

Turn to PZ Myers of Pharyngula this week, and you get a different message. Myers writes about the distress creationists feel when they are met with skepticism from typical British journalists. “Take a bow, any typical British reporters reading this. Could you please come over here and give lessons to typical American reporters?”

So now the scientists are telling us American science writers = bad, British science writers = good?

I don’t mean to single Myers or Goldacre out for special criticism. I don’t dispute the basic notions that the British press botched this cancer story big time or that some American reporters fall into the fair-and-balanced trap when writing about creationists. But the fact remains you can’t get a clear picture of the overall state of science writing from blogs.

There have been some attempts to scientifically measure the accuracy of science journalism, but the ones I’ve come across have only covered a narrow range, like this one on genetics. (It concluded that journalists do a pretty good job, actually.) But to test the crap hypothesis of Myers and others, you’d need something more ambitious. You could get 100 scientists to judge, and give them 1000 articles chosen from the most popular publications–stripped, of course, of any identifying marks that might bias anyone’s judgment. And then you could track the accuracy through time–backwards into whatever Golden Age you want to visit, or forward as economic forces continue to stretch and crush the business.

I don’t know what answer you’d get. There are certainly some dark forces at work in the science media ecosystem these days. Brumfiel rightly points out that journalism-by-press-release is on the rise. In fact, there are some web sites that churn out these press releases as their sole form of “news.” I find this pretty vile. Any outlet that presents a press release as news is making no independent attempt to explain the research involved or to find other scientists who might help create a more objective picture of it. It’s sad that there isn’t any effective backlash that is forcing newspapers or web sites to abandon this practice.

That being said, there is still a lot of good work out there (see the Knight Science Journalism Tracker for some examples). And it’s not as if we were free of bad science coverage twenty years ago. Bat Boy, anyone?

Blogging has certainly opened up a valuable new way for people to point out the errors in science journalism. But we don’t know how good or bad science journalism is overall. And the quality of science journalism doesn’t have that much to do with the quandary of the business right now. You can write as accurately about quantum physics as you want, but if your company just took out $8 billion in loans they can’t pay back,  you and your accuracy may still get fired.

—–

“Science journalism is in decline; science blogging is growing fast. But can the one replace the other, asks Geoff Brumfiel.”

That’s how Brumfiel’s Nature article kicks off. It’s a question that I’ve heard many times in one form or another. But I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what it means.

Let’s imagine that indeed all science journalists around the world spontaneously combusted, leaving behind the bloggers to write about science. Instead of people who research and report articles on a range of subjects, a network of experts would collaborate do the job. Advances in climate research handled by climatologists; advances in studies on spiders handled by arachnologists; and so on.

Will they be able to “replace” the vanished journalists? The question may sound reasonable, but it’s ultimately absurd. It is based on the idea that the Department of Science Writing is planning a shift from journalists to bloggers to fulfill some fixed quantity of writing, just like the Defense Department recalls a platoon of Marines from a war and sends in a new one with different equipment. Bloggers will write, and people who are interested in what they have to say will read them.

A more realistic question is this: how many of the millions of people who read about science in magazines and newspapers will shift their attention over to blogs written by scientists?

I think there could be a modest shift at best. We can’t know for sure what a world of science bloggers would look like. But we do know what a world of proto-bloggers looks like. Before scientists could blog, they wrote reviews for magazines like Scientific American. Scientific American has since moved to a mix of stories–some written by journalists, and some written by scientists but then edited by non-scientists and then illustrated and designed by professionals. Today, there are still some magazines that capture that proto-blogger spirit. But they have very modest readerships. American Scientist, for example, has a circulation of 144,000.

Bigger magazines are not necessarily better, of course. And a junky story in a magazine with 5 million readers is still a junky story. But I doubt that the detail-rich, lecture-like blog posts that a lot of scientists tend to write will reach millions, no matter how many journalists end up out of work.

Brumfiel’s piece is full of interesting stats, but it lacks hard numbers about where people read about science. It would be interesting to see just how many people now rely solely on blogs, having walked away from newspapers and magazines. It would be interesting to see how many people find blogs unpleasant and stick with old-fashioned reporting. But perhaps Brumfiel didn’t bother because it’s a statistical swamp.

Let’s say you read Ben Goldacre. On which side of the blog-MSM divide does that put you? It’s hard to say. If you read Bad Science at badscience.net, I guess you get your information from blogs. But you may read the exact same posts from Goldacre every week in the Guardian. Myers has joined Goldacre there as well. Maybe there was a divide once, but now it’s about as impermeable as a cheesecloth.

—–

Last week I wrote about bats. If I had written about bats ten years ago, I would have had to convey the beauty of their flight with words alone, or with the help of some modest illustrations with arrows to hint at the movement of their bodies. Now I can illustrate my article with high-definition movies. This is a science fiction dream I had in the nineties, which I now get to enjoy in real life. And I don’t need an army of film editors and programmers to help me.

This is the reason I started blogging in the first place. The Internet had matured so much since Ed Seidel revealed it to me that it has become a journalistic laboratory. I can experiment with many different ways of exploring science. Blogs are good not just for combining text and video, I find, but also for pursuing stories that don’t fit neatly into a single post–such as the drawn-out saga of George Will’s fact-checking fiasco over global warming.

But then there’s “George Divoky’s Planet.”

Darcy Frey published this article seven years ago in the New York Times Magazine. When I recently called out to readers of the Loom for examples of great science writing, several people named it. And I recalled it as well. It stands out in my memory more clearly than a vast number of other pieces that I’ve read more recently.

Here’s how it begins:

This is a story about global warming and a scientist named George Divoky, who studies a colony of Arctic seabirds on a remote barrier island off the northern coast of Alaska. I mention all this at the start because a reader might like to come to the point, and what could be more urgent than the very health and durability of this planet we call Earth? However, before George can pursue his inquiry into worldwide climate change; before he can puzzle out the connections between a bunch of penguinesque birds on a flat, snow-covered, icebound island and the escalating threat of droughts, floods and rising global temperatures, he must first mount a defense — his only defense in this frozen, godforsaken place — against the possibility of being consumed, down to the last toenail, by a polar bear while he sleeps. He must first build a fence.

Cooper Island, June 4, 2 o’clock in the morning. The sky is a cold slab of gray, the air temperature hovers in the upper 20’s and the wind — always the wind — howls across hundreds of miles of sea ice with such unremitting force that George has disappeared beneath a hat, two hoods and a thick fleece face mask covering all but his bespectacled eyes. Standing near the three small dome tents that make up his field camp on Cooper, George raises a pair of binoculars and begins to scan for bears. Past the island’s north beach, a wind-scarred plain of sea ice stretches uninterrupted to the pole. To the south, the nearest tree stands 200 miles away on the far side of the Brooks Range. Here, some 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, with the sun making a constant parabolic journey around the sky, George surveys a view that replicates in all directions: the snow-covered island merges with the sea ice at its shores, the dazzling sheets of sea ice stretch to meet a pale gray dome of sky. Surrounded by a vast, undulating whiteness, he appears to be standing in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. He appears to be standing on the tops of cirrus clouds.

You can’t write a story like this with a bit of embedded code. You can’t write it after spending half an hour reading over a paper in Geophysical Research Letters. You have to go to Cooper Island and stay there, you have to read and talk, you have to write and rewrite.

Frey couldn’t have written the story without back-up: an organization that paid for his plane tickets, that employed editors who helped him make the story better and fact-checkers to search for errors and photographers to add arresting images. The story benefited from being printed in ink on paper–a medium that lets you read several thousand words without feeling as if your eyes are going to fall out of your head. To get the ink on millions of pages, Frey also depended on people running massive printing presses. He depended on the people who sold subscriptions to the paper and wooed advertisers into buying ads. An army stood behind him.

I for one want to read stories like “George Divoky’s Planet” in the future. I wouldn’t mind writing a few of them myself. But if we must say goodbye to the old networks that made these stories possible, we won’t get to read them unless new networks rise to take their place. I don’t know what a new network would look like. They might be slightly retooled versions of the newspapers and magazines we see on the newsstand and online today. Or perhaps writers will end up working as entrepreneurs, selling their stories for all to read on Kindles.

When black holes collide, they can reshape entire galaxies. The little galaxy of journalism is being reshaped as well, but you, dear reader, are not a passive particle enslaved by the laws of physics. You can rail against the shallow and the petty, and throw your support behind the new experiments that deepen your understanding of the world. After the crash, you can help shape the galaxy.

Add Yours.

  1. Cromercrox
    March 25, 2009

    Great post. I do have a beef about press releases – news organiazations tend to assume that they can be written by anybody, so they frequently are. This ignores the fact that press releases are an important form of communication in their own right and should be composed by people who know what they are doing, not the gopher in a PR company.

  2. HP
    March 25, 2009

    I’ve been reading blogs since 1999, when there were perhaps a few hundred blogs at most, so I feel like an old hand in the blogwars. I really think that the journalists vs blogs conflict is at best manufactured and artificial. Whether we’re talking about science blogs, politics blogs, news blogs, humanities blogs, what have you, there would be no blogs without journalism to react to.

    The real conflict is not between bloggers and journalists, but between bloggers and the gatekeepers of journalism, the editors and publishers who decide what gets published, and how much emphasis to give it. It’s not the journalists who decide what story gets printed on page A3 when it’s current, and what story gets relegated to page G13, sometime in the next six months, if and when it’s convenient. Bloggers, I think, are wrong when they focus on the author of the odd piece-of-crap journalism that is occasionally commited to newsprint.

    The real demon — the enemy of my enemy, if you will — is the publishers and managing editors who have no idea what stories are newsworthy and why. This is not a new phenomenon. I think it was back in the 1940s that I.F. Stone said something like, “It’s easy to find the most important story in the New York Times. Just look at page B18 below the fold.”

    I get all my news via blogs these days, and have for the last several years. It’s not because the bloggers are better writers (they’re not), or because I no longer read journalists (I do, but only because someone has linked to a story from a blog). No, the reason I go to blogs for news (whether science news or politics or whatever), is that the blogs do a much better job of filtering out the noise and showing me the stories that actually matter. I think that if it were up to MEs and publishers, newspapers would contain no actual content at all. And yet they wonder why readership is down.

    Newspapers today are suffering, it’s true, but not because of any lack on the part of journalists. Newspapers are suffering because their managers and publishers are idiots — idiots who live in a bubble where idiots are rewarded and anyone with minimal competence is laughed at.

  3. B.R.
    March 25, 2009

    Nice entry on the whole science journalism issue. I think that much of the criticism of science journalism/science writing that you read on blogs these days is way too anecdotal (e.g., look at the mistake in this one article – sometimes it’s not even a mistake, it’s just a matter of word choice, or style) and sweeping (e.g., because of this one mistake, oh my gosh, all science writers except Dawkins and Zimmer :) are idiots). A lot of the criticism seems to come from folks who I’m guessing don’t write professionally and probably have no idea what the process involves, for example how often what appears in final print is an amalgam of what the writer originally wrote and what sometimes a series of editors do to that piece in the meanwhile. Nor do they seem to understand that nobody is perfect all the time. Is anybody ever perfect? I’m not sure where I’m going with this other than to say that maybe a little more understanding and thought- you know, the type of critical thinking that scientists should be better at – ought to go into some of the all-science-journalists/writers-are-stupid criticism that seems to be permeating the blogosphere these days.

  4. outeast
    March 25, 2009

    I can’t help thinking that this article/post (delete as preferred) rather mischaracterizes the positions taken by (at least some of) those bemoaning the sad state of science reporting in the traditional media.

    Certainly I’ve never heard anyone saying science reporting per se is redundant, just that there is now less wiggle room for lazy and incompetent science reporting by journalists who simply do not (in fact often cannot) do their jobs. Newspapers axing their science staff only exacerbates the problem: a decent science story needs to be researched and fact-checked by someone who can understand what they’re doing, not by some general-purpose hack who wouldn’t be able to identify a base-rate fallacy if it bit them in the burro.

    There’s a difference between journalists who report on science and science journalists.

  5. Heather
    March 25, 2009

    As a self-styled “science blogger”, I wouldn’t want the responsibility or have the hubris to ensure balanced coverage of current scientific advances. An editor provides an indispensable function of overview, that can hardly be assumed by any individual blogger. Even collective sites are prone to fashions – I’m thinking recently of the many independent blog reactions to recent pronouncements on condoms or certain medical journal editorials.

    I would also want to read more pieces like Darcy Frey’s. I would read a non-science outlet in which these appear on a regular basis. (I do subscribe to American Scientist.) If I took the time away from conducting science enough to write anything of remotely similar merit, and I did it on a regular basis, I would style myself as a science journalist. Perhaps freelance. But no longer only as a blogger.

    So, no, science blogging is not going to replace science journalism. The latter can masquerade as the former, though. Perhaps there is a place for an editor-type, perhaps from a traditional journal, who can “commission” pieces through themed blog carnivals, though, in which working scientists can take part?

  6. Tim Ogilvie
    March 25, 2009

    This is a great article and raises the right questions, with hopefully more runway than newspapers were able to get.

    David Swensen & Michael Schmidt wrote an interesting op-ed piece for the NY Times on creating an endowment for newspapers. I wonder if a similar model might be applied to science writing.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/opinion/28swensen.html

    I’ve got no idea how something like this would come into existence, but it seems like the right model to me….

  7. Charlie Petit
    March 25, 2009

    Carl – You hit the nail on the head with this, and I identify with that Mosaic reminiscence. I didn’t “get” the internet and browsing until Shoemaker-Levy hit Jupiter 15 years ago. A scientist told me “it’s all on the web.” I said what? But soon I was the only guy in the newsroom on Mosaic, watching that thing on one of the only so-equipped computers the paper had.
    A further remark is to counter the comment by CromerCrox. I read dozens of science news stories every day, and many of the press releases that helped to inspire them. By and large it is a rather competent cadre of university, nat’l lab, journal publisher, major society (Nat’l Geographic, Audubon, etc), and similar institution public affairs writers that composes those releases. They are often career pros, not gofers at independent p.r. companies. All press releases must be handled with caution, as they are inherently self-serving and may well err by omission. And corporate p.r. must be given an extra dry gimlet eye. Reporters are often far too dependent on press releases. They may turn their journalist brains off and just go into rewrite mode. But it’s easy to fall prey to that exactly because so many releases are impressively well done in terms of both accuracy and composition.

  8. Miriam Gordon
    March 25, 2009

    Carl, this is a great post. Your description of your first vision of the future reminded me of the first time I clicked on a “Share This” symbol under an article or blog entry I was reading. I had no idea what the hell I was looking at. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate it.

    I believe I mentioned to you that Science Writers In New York recently held a panel program on Social Media for Science Writers. Everything you’ve said here was brought up in this program. Among our distinguished panelists was Jay Rosen, a thought leader in the way journalism is changing in these times. He and Bora Zivkovic are pretty tight, actually. Based on what I learned from the panel and from Jay and Bora, the field of science journalism is evolving, but it’s not the end of science journalism. Only time will tell the effect of the internet on the future of science journalism.

    There’s a book that Google had all of its employees read called “The Long Tail”, by Chris Anderson, and I think the principles of this book apply very well to the current state of science journalism and how its changing. The main principle of the book is that the few macro-markets of the past (newspapers) are becoming less common, and making way for more micro-markets (blogs, etc). New business models for science journalism and science writing will come into being.

    The piece from Darcy Frey was amazing. You are right that a great deal of money is required for something like this. I believe that new sources for the money will arise. Just don’t ask me how.

    I think I’ve just reiterated what you said in this post.

  9. outeast
    March 26, 2009

    I’ve been thinking about this more, and one thing that I really feel is that the study Carl cites on journalistic accuracy is just too lenient. Would we accept political reporting that unquestioningly recited the claims to historic significance made by politicians? If a newspaper’s book section regurgitated the publisher’s press release about a new book would we not feel cheated? Even setting aside the frequent mistakes and misrepresentatuions of science found in media reports, it is simply not enough for a journalist to merely accurately relay the claims of a new paper.

    For any new research, the publishing journal and the researchers both have an obvious interest in pushing the significance of their findings – and there are known publishing biases to worsen that issue. A responsible journalist should be going further than merely regurgitating the conclusions of the paper by placing the research in a broader context, finding out whether it is really representative of the state of the science, and so on – something that Carl does routinely but that was not explored in that research (although the authors do actually highlight these potential problems at the end of the paper).

    There’s definitely space for (even need for) professional, competent science journalism. The question is whether and to what extent traditional media are actually fostering such journalists – and the very fact that a leading prefessional like Carl is evidently feeling the pinch suggests that there is a big problem. If bloggers are stepping into any gap, it’s one the media are cheerfully creating themselves.

  10. Willy
    March 26, 2009

    In thinking about “Visions of the Crash” and the larger media environment, I want to note what has happened at CNN. I was very disappointed when CNN dropped Miles O’Brien (http://milesobrien.wordpress.com/) last December – he is one of the best science reporters ever to appear on television. Over recent years, CNN dramatically decreased its coverage of science to news-breaking sensations (e.g., Alaskan volcanoes, ice on wings of planes that crashed), sometimes trivialized health care issues (e.g., Sanjay Gupta evaluating whether the personal health benefits of organic foods are worth the price, utterly neglecting to mention the ecological importance of organic foods: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0810/25/hcsg.01.html), and energy coverage that seems to be very closely linked to their major advertisers in the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries – wouldn’t want to spend more than 30 seconds at a time on greener solutions.

  11. Jake
    March 26, 2009

    What a wonderful post. I soaked it up. Thank you.

  12. Andrew Brown
    March 28, 2009

    A really fine, thoughtful piece Carl, and the example was particularly well chosen. The only thing I would think you underestimated is the importance of gatekeepers. One of the implicit promises that newspapers made their readers was that what was left out didn’t matter. I’m sure people will still pay for that kind of editorial judgement, but there is a whole swathe of newspapers which have stopped offering it. I don’t think blogs can, because there’s just so much information about that any one blogger can only sift a tiny specialised section of it. Some do a great job of that. But then their siftings need to be combined, and quite often rewritten as you rather delicately suggest. That needs more people; and soon you have an organisation which looks something quite like a newspaper, except that it’s not on paper and it’s broke.

  13. David B. Benson
    March 30, 2009

    What Jake wrote.

  14. Mark Henderson
    March 30, 2009

    Very good piece. You make an especially perceptive comment about the tendency by some bloggers to characterise science journalism as a monolithic whole. There is good and bad — and it’s easy to cherry-pick the latter.

    I thought I’d add a brief comment as someone who was quoted in the Nature piece — accurately but incompletely — admitting to the occasional use of press releases.

    I’m broadly in agreement that journalism by press release is a bad thing — especially when it is *all* that a reporter or news outlet produces. However, they do have a place, and it isn’t always unjustified to rely occasionally on well-written releases as a short-cut.

    The reason is that they free up so much more time to spend on other things. If I were to report everything with the thoroughness I would like, I would need a 20-day week — not least because of editors’ demands for coverage of stories I don’t particularly rate, and their tendency to want to cover themselves in case something that’s heavily done elsewhere is missed. Deadlines can also be extremely tight — especially when reporting for a UK newspaper on papers with West Coast authors. That’s an 8 hour time change, leaving little or no opportunity to speak to a scientist on the same day.

    By using a good press release in these circumstances (backed up at least by reading the published paper, and usually with a call to the lead author too), it becomes possible to get them out of the way quickly and accurately (if with little added value). That means I still have time to concentrate on the core of the job — chasing down exclusives, writing explanatory pieces that really add value, and reporting fully and forensically on the items that really matter. If used properly and selectively, good press releases can help a conscientious reporter who wants to break stories and write original material to do the job.

    It’s too simplistic to see every press-release rewrite as the same. If it’s all that people do, it’s a fair cop. But if the reporter in question is also producing a lot of good original work, it’s a different matter.

  15. Ginger Yellow
    March 30, 2009

    To be fair, Goldacre has a lot more to say about why British science coverage is so bad than just that one post. He wrote a whole book about it, and it’s the perennial topic of his weekly column in the Guardian (from which the book was mostly drawn). There are many angles to it, but the central one is that in Britain most science news isn’t reported by specialist science writers but by arts educated generalists, who don’t understand statistics or how to read a peer-reviewed paper. Now he does have more criticisms aimed at science journalism that is written by specialists – he’d prefer to see more scientists talking directly to readers, perhaps mediated by editors. But his main complaints are addresed at those who misreport science through ignorance or bias.

  16. Dave Hone
    March 31, 2009

    I would arge that there is a substantial difference between ‘science journalists’ and ‘journalists writing about science’. It is the former who produce these kinds fo thoughtful, accurate pieces about a specific topic that involves research, travel, interviews and more for a reader who really wants to know what’s going on. The latter tend to produce the quick ‘n’ dirty stuff that chews up press reseases and makjes big obvious and damageing mistakes chasing a lowest common demonitaor readership with short, dramatic articles. Both sides are often at the mercy of editors and headline writers who can make good things bad (as per the recent New Scientist articel on reporting of autism).

    There will always be a place for science journalism, but there is no harm in highlighting the (many) poor articles, and poor writing that sensationalise, distory and, yes, even lie about the evidence. Blogging can do a lot of good in that respect certainly, but I do want to read well crafted articles by science journlaists who can elucidate things I cannot get from even a good ‘basic’ blog, and will have put in the time and effort and craft to produce something both interesting and informative.

  17. David Dobbs
    April 7, 2009

    Really nice job, Carl. As they say down at the ballpark, you got all of that one.

  18. Holly Cumbers
    April 22, 2009

    does anyone know where i can get hold of more information about the differences between science articles in newspapers and blogs as I am doing it for a university project and have so far found the information really limited so far. Thanks really appreciate it

Continuing the Discussion

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    [...] Davis, David Crotty, Eric Berger, John Hawks, Jennifer Gardy, Bee, Text Technologies, Chris Mooney, Carl Zimmer, Henry Gee, Mr. Gunn, Mark Liberman, Ben Goldacre, Chris Patiland Vivian Siegel, Chris Mooney [...]

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