Jul 06 2009

The New Journalism

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Comments: 4

A recent spat between journalist Steve Conner and science blogger Ben Goldacre brings into focus the rapid changes journalism is facing. Conner, a science journalist, heard about a Skeptics in the Pub meeting that Ben was holding to discuss why the  “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly.” Conner, apparently, took exception to that discussion.

Ben gives full details here, including a nice response to Conner, but here is Conner’s best rant:

But their arrogance is not new. Medical doctors in particular have always had a lofty attitude to the media’s coverage of their profession, stemming no doubt from the God-like stance they take towards their patients. Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say their profession is broken, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly – not yet anyway.

Ben took great pleasure in pointing out that while Conner was being defensive about criticism aimed at lazy journalists – he got the date of the meeting wrong and falsely assumed that the three speakers were all doctors when only one was. It is also interesting that Conner appears to have nothing but contempt for a profession that he covers as a journalist.
This exchange raises two issues regarding the state of science journalism (and all of journalism, really). The first is the one the Skeptics in the Pub were discussing – an apparent decline in the overall quality of science journalism at a time when the complexity and volume of science is increasing and when their are rising voices of anti-science and pseudoscience.

Science journalists today not only have to deal with reporting on complex science news stories, like stem cells, fMRI studies, quantum mechanics, global warming, and artificial intelligence – they also have to make sense of the anti-vaccination movement, intelligent design, free energy claims, as well as ideological think tanks and  corporate science spin. It’s challenging.

At the same time they are facing declining resources. News rooms are closing at a rapid pace, and those that are surviving so far are downsizing – which often means closing the dedicated science department and turning science stories over to generalist writers and editors. The result is a widening gap between the science savvy of primary journalists and the complexity of science news reporting. It’s no wonder the quality of science reporting it getting alarmingly low, and that was exactly the topic of the Skeptics’ discussion. That Conner would have been offended by this is really quite absurd and alarming in itself.

The source of journalists’ woes is, by all accounts, the devastating blow that the internet has dealt to the journalism business model. People are used to getting news for free on the internet, so why pay for a clumsy paper news source that is mostly filled with stories you could have read (and probably did read) hours or days ago on the internet? This problem does need to be solved, because we need primarily journalism and dedicated journalists who can spend their full time chasing down stories (not just blogging in their spare time). The internet needs to be looked at as a solution, not just a problem. Forward looking outfits are doing this, but have yet to hit upon a viable business model – but they will eventually.

The other issue this exchange brings to light is the fact that the internet, and in this case specifically science bloggers, has altered the news cycle a bit, adding a second wave. And again, journalists like Conner may see this as a problem for them, but more savvy journalists will see it as a boon.

When a science news story hits the cycle used to be – press release to the media following by a single wave of journalism covering the story with varying quality. More in depth stories would later appear in long format in science magazines or as feature articles in the media.

Now, the cycle is more complex and involves at least a second wave – press release followed by primary reporting (both by the media but also now along side science bloggers) but then followed by an immediate reaction to the reporting from science bloggers. Therefore, sometimes the science bloggers hit the first wave, reporting right off the press releases or, more often, the primary publication in the science literature. But then they also generate a second wave of commentary on the reporting itself, sometimes even evolving into a series of reactions among bloggers – a virtual discussion.

Journalists like Conners may see this as a problem, but it isn’t, it’s a solution. What this means is that science journalists are being held by scientists and science-afficionados to a higher standard. If they screw up, they are immediately called on it. It also means they have to compete with actual scientists who are sometimes doing the primary science reporting right along with the journalists. In my opinion, scientist bloggers (speaking from the bias of being one)  generally do a better job of reporting science than journalists. Don’t get me wrong, there are still great science journalists out there. I just think being a scientist and educator first and a journalist second puts one in a better position to report science news than being a journalist first and science enthusiast second.

But here’s the thing – this is not even a choice we have to make; we can have both. Science bloggers entered this new world order looking for a niche and a purpose and rapidly found it. Science journalists are the ones who have to adapt, but I think the good ones will. As I said above, there is a role for journalists with the time and resources to do interviews and investigations full time. And there is a role for science bloggers to provide their expertise and hold science reporting to a high standard, as well as add in depth discussion to mere reporting.

With the internet, news is now a two way street – a dialogue. Journalists have to adapt to that. If you are going to report on science news you will likely be hit with a wave of analysis, commentary, and criticism from an army of scientists and their blogs. Deal with it. This serves the public well, and they know it.

Some journalists have adapted well. They often contact science bloggers who have covered a topic to get their analysis of a news story. They see science bloggers as a resource, not a source of unwanted criticism. New outlets are now also incorporating science bloggers, and journalists are blogging. So the lines between journalist and blogger are blurring.

Science bloggers also, in my opinion, need to see journalists not just as a source of horrible science gaffes that need to be fixed, but also as a potential resource. We need to encourage and praise good science journalism as much as we criticize the bad, and make ourselves available as a resource to journalists and news outlets.

Ultimately I think that science blogging has opened up a new era of collaboration between scientists and journalists that is resulting in vastly better science news reporting to the public. Quality may be declining in the traditional media, and there is still a great deal of crap out there on the internet, but we are in transition. For anyone interested in a science news story, you can find in depth analysis from multiple perspectives.

Further, science bloggers have always been in the position that journalists now find themselves – open to criticism and correction from an army of commenters – the third wave of science news reporting. Sometimes I have even had the researchers themselves show up in my comments to discuss the reporting and discussion of their discovery.

The Steve Conners of the world need to open their eyes and see what it happening. Like any paradigm shift in any industry, you can see it as a threat to the status quo and fight against it, or you can embrace it and profit from it. Science bloggers are here to stay.

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