Okay, you're thinking a guy who started a site where scientists write feature articles directly to the audience must be insane to endorse big media science journalism, right?   

Not at all.  Science journalism is a different beast than what we do here but it still has more commonality than it lacks and that's why I was intrigued by a recent back and forth between Professor Larry Moran of the University of Toronto and Chris Mooney of Seed Media's Scienceblogs.com.

Moran is never one to pull punches - that's why I have him on my blogroll - but that doesn't mean I always agree with him, I just like his style.

Recently he went after science journalism, which prompted a response from Chris Mooney at  Scienceblogs.com and they both made some great points but this is one time where I side with science journalism.

I think some of the disagreement with Chris is due artifacts of the 'framing' issue.   Being new in media when I first wrote about the perils of framing, I assumed I was the only one, because Scienceblogs.com is a popular blog and Chris is a good writer so I assume people like what they write - but it turns out I wasn't even in the first 100 people who didn't think much of framing.    That doesn't mean everything the guy writes has to be stigmatized today and in the future because of it.   I didn't think much of the blatant partisan nature of The Republican War On Science but he's a little older now, a little wiser, and he'll have at least 8 years to find out it isn't Republicans in a war on science, it's all politicians.   There just happened to be a Republican in office when he started to notice.

Mooney's main point was:
Memo to scientists: If you don't like science journalists, you're going to like even less what you get once they're gone.
I'm sympathetic to his concern and after reading his stuff for the last month I think Mooney will become one of my favorites on policy issues related to science  -  but Prof. Moran is not sympathetic and feels we would be just fine without science journalism at all.

...most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it. 

Maybe the general public would have been more interested in science if science journalists hadn't been writing so much hype about "breakthroughs" for the past twenty years. Maybe the public would have been more interested in science if so-called "science" journalists hadn't been confused about the difference between science and technology.

Science isn't about what the latest discoveries can do to make your life better. It's about learning how the natural world actually works. It's all about knowledge and not application or politics.

Science journalists have let us down. I say good riddance.
A bold statement, since we've heard various laments about layoffs at CNN and there are a lot of journalists who don't feel like they are incompetent.

But what about his main point, that science journalists have no value?   The one thing most scientists wish for is greater engagement and understanding of important issues by the general public.   If the only source of information is a peer-reviewed journal, that really can't happen.  And if science and scientists become marginalized, so does funding.  

Mooney wonders about the impact as well.
Honestly, based upon the foregoing, I have to question whether Larry Moran knows what a science journalist is--or at least, whether we're talking about the same thing. 
A pretty mild statement which obviously reflects the respect that Mooney holds for Moran.    Mooney feels like science journalists are part of the solution and not part of the problem.    Moran does not agree and says, "Well Chris, I hate to tell you this but there are plenty of scientists who share my opinion, even though they may not have put it so bluntly" which is an odd logical fallacy to use for a guy who's been doing science and critical thinking for a long time.   It doesn't really matter what his friends think of science journalism any more than it mattered what Pauline Kael felt about Richard Nixon, saying he couldn't have won because "No one I know voted for Nixon!"  after his landslide victory.

The crux of the issue is, is science journalism that bad?

I'm not a journalist and I am not a scientist but I believe that if people have greater awareness about science topics, they will make more informed decisions - that's why I created this site and bucked the trend of big media controlling who gets to write and have a wide audience.   I recognize that other media compananies have to think about other things before journalism; that's business reality, though I am also lucky enough to be exempt from those concerns, unlike them.   We can truly let scientists write whatever the want, without editors or size restrictions, because I trust scientists to know what they are talking about.   

But I trust science journalists too and  I also agree with Mooney that Moran may not be comparing apples to apples.  He lumps in ScienceDaily, for example, but they are just a press release distribution service, like Eurekalert or PRNewswire.   Why say that press releases are an example of science journalism?  

If anything, Moran should be happy about ScienceDaily because, unlike Eurekalert, they don't charge universities like his to put science awareness in the hands of the broad public.  They do the same thing for free.

Are press releases a bad thing?   It depends on how stupid you think your audience is.  We have discussed numerous times whether or not we should carry news releases at all but my contention has always been that our audience is smart; they are not educated by press releases, they just want to know what is happening first.  Sometimes we make fun of press releases because they have it coming but releases written by Stanford or Yale are pretty darn good.

Without press releases, journalists would have to carry subscriptions to 1200 journals, which means only the BBC and NY Times and a few others could write about science at all.   I don't think putting in a financial barrier like expensive subscriptions is the route to better science journalism.   With press releases, a journalist in any small publication can read about a new study, find an interesting hook, get a copy from the author and some quotes and make a story out of it.

If there are no science journalists, who will write about science?   Well, scientists of course, and we have scientists here who do an outstanding job but they also have real jobs and we don't pay anything so it can't happen every day.   People who get paid will produce content more consistently.

But some people will try to generate controversy too, so there will be examples of sensationalism, like New Scientist and their attempts to debunk Darwin, but that isn't a mark on science journalism overall.    And there will be some elitism.  Moran's disdain for science journalists is evident - a few exceptions does not make a neutral arbiter of quality - but scientists can also find plenty to criticize on peer reviewed studies so it's no surprise there either.

Outside those fringes, science writing and science journalism is pretty strong but Mooney has a point; if journalists stop writing about science, there will be a lot less science in mainstream discussion.    Whether you agreed with Bush or not, his restrictions on stem cell research were good for science - California alone threw $3 billion at human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research for no other reason than that Bush was against it, something that could never have occurred through the NIH, and scientists also found creative alternatives, also something that would probably not have happened.    Almost as importantly, the issue mobilized people, it got biology and medicine into dinner table discussions.   Likewise you may feel like journalists were either too critical of global warming studies or not critical enough but climate science discussion has generated pageviews in the billions, something that would never have happened if journalists did not cover an obscure little committee called the IPCC.

I think the audience is smarter than Moran gives them credit for  and I don't think journalism is dying the way Mooney feels - I just think it's been a bloated business model for a long time and there is a natural culling effect taking place.   Good science journalists will always have jobs.

Could science journalists do better by trusting the audience a little more and not dumbing it down the way corporate heads say they should ?   I think so.    Since starting this two years ago I have been amazed at how much science people know.   And equally amazed by how much of it is filtered through their political and ideological positions - and I don't mean just Republicans, there are just as many Democrats lockstepping to the positions they are supposed to agree with.   A good source of information has value in changing minds.

Could scientists do better by trusting the audience a little more?  I think so.   Moran said above that he believed most scientists have the disdain for journalism, and therefore the masses, that he has - I disagree.   With very few exceptions, the scientists I have asked to help clarify things or for interview questions have been eager to do so.   They want to get it right and they know journalists will do just that if they get some help.

So let's help.