Science Journalism: 'Revealers of the Rotten'?
    By Hank Campbell | July 29th 2012 01:25 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Science journalism used to not have that 'science' qualifier.  It was journalism, like any other kind, but about science.

    Last decade, though, science journalism lost its way, as we have discussed many times before. Too many science journalists became cheerleaders for science or, worse, advocates for aspects of controversial science topics. They were no longest trusted guides for the public and, as a result, people stopped reading them and corporate media no longer had need for something no one read. Science 2.0 and other sites filled the void nicely.

    Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner, psychologists at Cardiff University, recently discussed the second UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ) in The Guardian and what journalists and some outsiders think still plagues the field.  The key question seemed to be what the role of science journalism is; whether it should be investigative, as in exposing hype or even outright fraud, or explanatory, providing context for complex topics.

    Context has certainly been a failure.  I was at an AAAS conference where Pallab Ghosh of the BBC said he saw the cracks in coverage of climate change many years ago.  Science journalists were so conspiratorially consumed with public relations efforts by fossil fuel companies they no longer asked the awkward questions of scientists in the field - we commented on it as well, in 2006 and 2007, when media talking points were parroted as evidence and 'churnalism' articles were produced based on each press release.  Later, the actual reports were released and turned out to have numerous flaws.

    What about now? While bloggers refuse to ask awkward questions about positions they already believe, especially if they have a political slant (some even go out of their way to engage in scientization of politics), science journalism is looking a lot better - that may be because only the good ones are left and the shoddy ones have been shaken out of the field.  I didn't make fun of any science journalists in my craziest Higgs stories article, science journalism did quite well.

    Chambers and Sumner address other issues as well, like why science journalism, which should be about exposing flaws and keeping people honest, seems to be incapable of doing it for their own field.  Martin Robbins, also at The Guardian, was one of few journalists even willing to acknowledge that science journalism had a liberal bias.  That is having blinders on, folks. When majorities are overwhelming, it is easy to dismiss bias - denying there is any bias when you have to see the affected people in the hallway is less easy.   That is why it is so easy to deny there is any bias against non-liberals in academia; there is no one there to argue the opposite so if a scientist knows even one conservative, they assume there is no prejudice.  It's the rationalization some whites also used to use to deny that racism still existed. 

    Can science journalists ask the awkward questions?  Can they be trusted guides?  Can they police themselves?  The first two seem obviously yes, because only the best people have survived and they did those two things anyway.  But in a small insular community, will they police each other?  No.  I am sure they will police me, they are very good about swarming over anyone who isn't gushing about how awesome corporate science media and its paid bloggers and pet positions are, but it's clearly an echo chamber and they are very careful around each other.  Science journalism has already gotten pared down to numbers that make sense, like many corporate news departments have done, but they need to work on having more diversity and certainly more investigative objectivity, including about the flaws in the field.


    Frank Parks
    As an interested observer, I’m a writer (but not a journalist) who visits many different web based science journals or a regular basis, I think that I have only seen two or three instances of ‘policing’ within the ranks. In both cases that I remember specifically, it was a specialist who called out a generalist.

    I must qualify my following observations by stating that I only read science journalism on the internet. (1) The journalists that write feature length articles, for the major sites, appear to be very busy. (2) Those journalists that use a blog as their platform seem to have the most time. (3) Neither of these groups is interested in casting stones because they also live in a glass house. So, your ‘insular community’ is right on the mark.

    I agree with you that the quality of science journalism has improved. I wonder how much of this perceived improvement is due to the realization that hasty-tasty headlines can only sustain one for a short period of time.

    Continue to appreciate Hank's continued counter-views. As a liberal science journalist I do not see the liberal bias as much as I see a consensus bias--and consensus tends to be on the liberal side of the academy because the liberal side ( if it is a side) is usually right. You may not like it, but that's my consistent experience of the academy as a science journalist.
    I don't know any decent science ( or other) journalist who would deliberately pass up a scoop on either side. Re: global warming ( better called, for now, global "weirding" )--now even the leading so-called conservative critics ( save a few) have amended and altered their views to come closer in line with the consensus view.
    The real bias is toward what might be called "consumer science news," which is what tends to make for the hasty-tasty (nice phrase!) headlines.
    My view is that leading science journals are simply not interested in policing the business side of science--the makers of assays, probes, etc.,--upon which the enterprise they cover is increasingly dependent. Probes, assays, scans and imaging devices have become the ATMs of modern bench science.
    Love you Hank!

    Thanks!  :)

    But I have to note again I make a distinction between liberals and progressives the same way we would make a distinction between libertarians and conservatives and then Republicans.  Without liberals, there is no science, plain and simple, and therefore no Science 2.0.  And liberal journalists are okay by me. Progressives are another matter because of that social authoritatianism and it inhabits some parts of journalism still. Academia too. Liberals did not kill science journalism but progressive activists/cheerleaders certainly did.

    I agree about consumer science focus - scare journalism alternatives with miracle vegetables.

    You should trademark that "hasty-tasty" bit!
    Frank Parks
    Heh.  Not sure I could get that trademark, but it does draw a nice mental picture of the 'consumer science news' that Greg described.

     Leaving the politics aside (difficult, but try it anyhow) we all know that most of the 'real' journalists wouldn't pass up a scoop.  We should also realize that the need for eyeballs drives far too much of what we call news.  The real, and honest, journalists (in any field, but especially in the sciences) will check facts and look for dissenting views before they jump into a hot story.  Those who don't wish to take that time miss the ball many more times than they hit a homer.  About the best they can do is get a bloop single up the middle.  Note:  All of the online hubub surrounding the FTL neutrino mess was hysterically funny for me.

    I have faith that time, and the number of failures, will further reduce the ranks of those who are only interested in gaining those credulous eyeballs rather than take a slower path to accurate reporting.  Good, solid, informed, and accurate journalism (without too much political framing) is needed now but will become more of a necessity as our civilization continues to break new ground.  $0.02