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A good week for UK science journalism (despite one big fail)

It’s been an interesting week for UK science journalism. On the one hand, we had a veteran science journalist laying out a manifesto for failure, by suggesting that reporters are messengers with no remit for analysis or fact-checking.

I’m still staring wide-eyed in disbelief over that, but a couple of noteworthy events today have lifted my spirits about the state of the country’s science journalism. For a start, we have Mark Henderson at the Times continuing to understand that the Internet offers interesting possibilities denied to print publication. His interview with our new science minister David Willetts was published in the Times, but also posted in a much fuller form on its blog.

At the Genetic Future blog, Daniel Macarthur broke a brilliant story about a screw-up at personal genomics company 23andme, which ended up with up to 96 people receiving the wrong data. It was a great example of excellent journalism emanating from the blogosphere and both New Scientist and Nature deserve credit for credting Daniel appropriately.

Nature once again shows why it produces some of the best science coverage out there by dissecting two reports that cast suspicion on the WHO’s pandemic response, suspicion that now seems unsubstantiated.

And most excitingly of all, the Guardian have launched the first of their Story Trackers – a new way of telling science stories that Alok Jha described to me as a “slow live-blog”. The idea is that they pick specific big stories and continuously update their coverage for a few days with reactions, comments and links, sourced from other coverage, blog posts, tweets and more. It’s an idea that stems from Alan Rusbridger’s “mutualisation of news” idea that he expounded in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture.

That is, the Guardian realises that there are plenty of other conversations going on about the stories it covers, often by people with more knowledge and expertise, and it is silly to ignore that. It’s the same idea that drove the unconference format so enjoyed by attendees at the ScienceOnline’10 conference. Quoting Rusbridger:

“We feel as if we are edging towards a new world in which we bring important things to the table – editing; reporting; areas of expertise; access; a title, or brand, that people trust; ethical professional standards and an extremely large community of readers. The members of that community could not hope to aspire to anything like that audience or reach on their own; they bring us a rich diversity, specialist expertise and on the ground reporting that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without including them in what we do.”

Spot on, and enter the story trackers. By pulling in material from all across the internet, they tap into this rich vein of expertise while providing the people who they’re quoting and linking to with extra traffic. It’s a win-win.

The trackers are also based on the idea of living stories. News stories don’t finish at the point of publication or the lifting of the embargo. There’s a huge amount of reaction and commentary that goes on long after the first words appear in print or pixels. That’s all part of the experience of reading modern news and, again, it’s silly to ignore it and wise to capitalise on it.

For all of the above, I’m feel really quite optimistic about the future of mainstream science journalism in the UK. There are good people doing good things and while my joy will almost inevitably be dashed tomorrow morning, I think it’s wise to highlight the best examples when we see them.

5 thoughts on “A good week for UK science journalism (despite one big fail)

  1. “Slow live blogging” – I like that. This is exactly the kind of thing that science journalists should be doing. Peer-review doesn’t end with publication. All pre-publication peer-review does, in general, is establish the paper meets a set of minimum standards. (Technically for something like PLoS One, technically and in terms of importance for something like Nature). Obviously, meeting the said criteria does not establish truth — that’s what post-publication peer-review is all about. Journalists really ought to cover the post-publication side (of important stories, at least) so The Guardian‘s initiative is most welcome.

  2. It’s good, isn’t it? At a time where for some newspapers, it’s still a struggle to get your comments published at all, the Guardian’s take on things is much more refreshing.

  3. The Grauniad’s method for collating information for the story tracker seems terribly antique. Asking people to email in?! I’m surprised they’re not trying to use Google (or other tools) to find the links out from stories.

    Or perhaps they will be, once they’ve got the technology working.

  4. I think you underestimate how time-consuming this would be on top of an already packed journalistic workday. The idea of getting people to submit material is absolutely key to getting this to work in any practical way.

  5. I was thinking it should be possible to set something up to search automatically – it’ll get false positives, but reading through those should be pretty quick.

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