I’ve just spoken at the opening plenary of the second day of the World Conference of Science Journalists at Doha, Qatar. It’s a panel called “Am I a science journalist?”with myself, my fellow Discover blogger Chris Mooney, Mo Costandi, Homayoun Kheyri, and Cristine Russell.
Here’s the description of the panel:
In the evolving world of science communication, how do we define a science journalist? This panel will discuss whether the venerable word “journalist” can or should be applied to some, all, or none of the new generation of science bloggers and educators who are remaking the field.
And this is what I said:
I want to talk about polar bears. Polar bears are famously in trouble because the ice of their Arctic home is melting. One of the consequences of this is that grizzly bears are encroaching into polar bear territory. These are two very similar species that tend to avoid each other, but they’re now being shoved into close contact. And they’re breeding – they’re creating hybrids called grolar bears.
I empathise with the grolar bear.
I’ve been writing a science blog called Not Exactly Rocket Science for 5 years. I’ve also been freelancing for magazines and newspapers for most of that time. I have variously called myself a science blogger, a science writer and a science journalist, and I know people who would disagree with the last of those. In five years, I have seen this “debate” about bloggers and journalists rear its head again and again. Do bloggers “count” as journalists? Are blogs journalism? And I’ve come to realise that this debate is exactly like the film Titanic: it is tedious, it goes on forever, everyone’s a caricature and they’re stuck on a massive sinking ship.
I am not kidding when I say that it goes on forever. I thought we were done with it years ago. But here’s BBC journalist Andrew Marr from last year: “Most bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting.” Of course, one cannot expect a columnist to let facts and reality get in the way of cheap rhetoric but indulge me for a moment, while I consider my reality.
When I write for my blog, I do so in exactly the same way as I would for a mainstream organisation. I ask whether stories are worth telling. I interview and quote people. I write in plain English. I provide context. I fact-check… a lot. I do not use press releases, much less copy them. I don’t even own pajamas.
My point, and it has been said many times before, is that blogs are simply software. They are a channel, a medium, a container for all sorts of things including journalism. Meanwhile, journalism is a craft. It is about involving accuracy, the collection of information, the telling of stories, that can be practiced anywhere by anyone with the right set of skills. It is not a newspaper. It is not a job title.
Now, I’m not saying that anyone who starts writing or talking is automatically a journalist – there is more to it than that. But I am saying that anyone can be. I have no training in science journalism and I never did an internship. All I have is what I call my Masters from the University of Pissing About on the Internet. I almost stumbled into this profession, and there are many others taking the same weird amateur route.
They’re not doing internships, they’re not beholden to a legacy institution. They’re just doing their own thing. Robert Krulwich in a recent commencement speech likened this approach to sneaking into Troy. Rather than besieging the city, or waiting to be thrown a key, you build a horse. You get on with it. You write because you love it. You report because it is something that you are compelled to do. You do it in your own terms – you decide which tools you want to use, what writing style you want to use. You build a community of “horizontal loyalty” with those around you and you buoy each other up.
And I think that all of this makes it one of the most exciting times to be a science journalist. It means a more diverse array of science journalism. The new approach doesn’t replace the old (that’s a straw man) but it does complement and enhance it. I call it to the Cambrian explosion of science journalism. I actually think that most people in this field get this and are excited by it.
But it fascinates me that some people react to this influx of amateur writers by drawing up defensive cordons. I have been told that it only counts as journalism if it’s investigative, or if it’s something that people don’t want you to write, or if it’s edited, or if you’re paid to do it, or if you use quotes, or if you wear a fedora with a Press pass ticking out of it. It’s a bizarre taxonomic game.
To an extent, I get why it’s played. I think people are rightly worried about their industry. As I said at the start: massive sinking ship. People see a profession in trouble, they want to save and protect it. They see these random interlopers trying to claim a stake and they think that it somehow devalues this noble thing that they’re trying to defend. I certainly agree that good journalism in all its forms is a necessary thing that is worth defending. But no one has ever saved something by playing with definitions. You protect journalism by trumpeting its values, criticising people who do it poorly and supporting those who do it well, regardless of the medium they happen to use. You won’t buoy up journalism through taxonomy.
For a start, it’s just impossible. There may have been a time when it was straightforward to say that person is a journalist and this person is not. But this is not that time. Here we have random amateurs committing acts of journalism without any training. We have seasoned journalists striking it out on their own in bloggy environments. We have people who are part-time journalists who make a living through a variety of means. I know people who are paid as journalists and do little beyond what a good RSS feed could accomplish. I also know people who would take it as a mortal insult if you called them a journalist but who write pieces that are indistinguishable from high-quality journalism. It’s a very odd situation.
And here’s a scary truth – a lot of these amateurs, the ones doing their own thing, are really knowledgeable. Your beat? That’s their field – they know it inside out. And an even scarier thing – some of them can write. Really well. Scientists aren’t meant to do that! Hey, at least no one’s reading them – wait, whaddayou mean people are reading them? That’s the end times!
And oddly, some of the people who are doing this are getting hired. I gave a similar talk two years ago and I said at the time that it would be great to see more bridges between mainstream and hobbyist writers. And there are. I blog at Discover. Wired has its own blogging stable, as does PLoS and the Guardian. Scientific American hired Bora Zivkovic – in his own words a “rabble-rousing blogger” – to head their online communities.
So are these people all journalists? Here, I find it helpful to think of modern journalism in terms of mental disorders. The field of mental health is moving away from sharply defined diagnoses to spectrums of behaviours. In a similar way, there is a spectrum of journalistic values, norms and techniques, which are present to different extents in different people or even individual pieces of work.
I know I fall somewhere on that spectrum. Am I a journalist? Honestly, I care less about the answer than I once did. I am not being blase – I care very deeply about journalism, but there are few things more boring than journalists arguing over what counts as journalism. We live in a world full of stories, about amazing people doing amazing things and terrible people doing terrible things. I will use every medium I can to tell those stories. I will try to tell them accurately so people aren’t misled. I will try to tell them well so people will listen. If people want to argue about what to call that, that’s fine for them.
I would rather just do it.