Wednesday 29 December 2010

Science Journalism

For my sins, one of the many minor post-graduate qualifications I've picked up is a Graduate Certificate (just a short course, not the full Graduate Diploma) in Science Communication.

So I found this article, The Line Between Science and Journalism is Getting Blurry….Again of professional, as well as personal, interest.
False measures of journal quality – like the infamous Impact Factor – were used to determine who gets a job and tenure and who falls out of the pipeline. The progress of science led inevitably to specialization and to the development of specialized jargon. Proliferation of expensive journals ensured that nobody but people in highest-level research institutions had access to the literature, so scientists started writing only for each other.

Scientific papers became dense, but also narrowed themselves to only “this is how the world works”. The “this is new” became left out as the audience already knew this, and it became obvious that a paper would not be published if it did not produce something new, almost by definition.
So, at the close of the 20th century, we had a situation in which journalism and science, for the first time in history, completely separated from each other. Journalism covered what’s new without providing the explanation and context for new readers just joining the topic. Science covered only explanation and only to one’s peers.

In order to bridge that gap, a whole new profession needed to arise. As scientists understood the last step of the scientific method – communication – to mean only ‘communication to colleagues’, and as regular press was too scared to put truth-values on any statements of fact, the solution was the invention of the science journalist – someone who can read what scientists write and explain that to the lay audience. With mixed success. Science is hard. It takes years to learn enough to be able to report it well. Only a few science journalists gathered that much expertise over the years of writing (and making mistakes on the way).

So, many science journalists fell back on reporting science as news, leaving the explanation out. Their editors helped in that by severely restricting the space – and good science coverage requires ample space.

A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.

This format also led to the choice of stories. It is easy to report in this way if the news is relevant to the audience anyway, e.g., concerning health (the “relevant” stories). It is also easy to report on misconduct of scientists (the “fishy” stories) – which is not strictly science reporting. But it was hard to report on science that is interesting for its own sake (the “cool” stories).

What did the audience get out of this? Scientists are always up to some mischief. And every week they change the story as to what is good or bad for my health. And it is not very fun, entertaining and exciting. No surprise that science as endeavour slowly started losing trust with the (American) population, and that it was easy for groups with financial, political or religious interests to push anti-science rhetoric on topics from hazards of smoking to stem-cell research to evolution to climate change.

At the end of the 20th century, thus, we had a situation in which journalism and science were completely separate endeavors, and the bridge between them – science journalism – was unfortunately operating under the rules of journalism and not science, messing up the popular trust in both.
Enter the Blogger..... but you should Read The Whole Thing.

There are a number of lessons, ones I've tried to follow almost instinctively, out of intuition rather than as the result of conscious choice.
If you don’t link to your sources, including to scientific papers, you lose trust. If you quote out of context without providing that context, you lose trust. If you hide who you are and where you are coming from – that is cagey and breeds mistrust. Transparency is the new objectivity.

And transparency is necessarily personal, thus often phatic. It shows who you are as a person, your background, your intentions, your mood, your alliances, your social status.

There are many reasons sciencebloggers are more trusted than journalists covering science.

First, they have the scientific expertise that journalists lack – they really know what they are talking about on the topic of their expertise and the audience understands this.

Second, they link out to more, more diverse and more reliable sources.

Third, being digital natives, they are not familiar with the concept of word-limits. They start writing, they explain it as it needs to be explained and when they are done explaining they end the post. Whatever length it takes to give the subject what it’s due.

Finally, not being trained by j-schools, they never learned not to let their personality shine through their writing. So they gain trust by connecting to their readers – the phatic component of communication.

Much of our communication, both offline and online, is phatic. But that is necessary for building trust.
I'd add one more: if you make a mistake - as you will - don't hide it. Use strikethrough to leave the error visible, and put the correction below.

It's more important that your readers have an accurate measure of your reliability as an author, than to uncritically trust you because you hide your mistakes. Whether trusted or not, whether trustworthy or not, you can at least be honest. Transparent. Even if honestly wrong.

So I guess I must be a Science Journalist. Who knew?


Anonymous said...

Based on that thesis, the greatest enemy of science journalism is television news.

brief - check
out of context - check
without sources - check

Yep, tv news does all of that.

Nice post. I wish I could see things getting better.

- Rocky

Rob said...

There are also a number of excellent websites that provide up-to-the-minute science news. My favourite is - but there are others.

But to get a more meatier grasp of science, you can't go past books! Some of the science popularizers are not only world-renowned experts in their fields, but also excellent communicators. I'm thinking of people like Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, Brian Greene, Martin Rees, Stephen Jay Gould - just to name a few of the higher profile ones. Books in Australia are outrageously expensive, so it's best for us Aussies to buy them online (at one-third the price compared with bookstores).