Science blogging versus journalism

By Phil Plait | July 7, 2009 12:00 pm

I recently gave a talk at the National Academy of Sciences about science blogging, social networking, and communication in general. I had a lot of fun, and the NAS has posted a podcast about the meeting with some excerpts of what I said (they have a list of older ‘casts as well).

I’ve talked about this before, this new media we’re facing and embracing. Well, most of us are embracing it. Recently, fellow science/skeptic blogger Ben Goldacre ran into some static from a journalist who just doesn’t get it, and in fact appears to have his fingers firmly in his ears while he yells "LALALALALALA!". I was all set to write about this, but yet another fellow science/skeptic blogger, Steve Novella, took the electrons right out of my keyboard.

He’s right: we need to look to the internet as a solution and opportunity, not a road block to information. Newspapers and other media who took the latter path are finding themselves starved of revenue, because they just don’t get it. Ones who did — like Discover and Seed magazines — are flourishing online. I’d say that’s pretty strong evidence that media and journalists taking hold of this not-so-new medium are the ones who will still be around in the long run.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science

Comments (31)

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  1. Changing with the times « A Man With A Ph.D. | July 8, 2009
  1. ZERO

    The media needs to have more science reports in it!

  2. Lee

    “Think of it as evolution in action” – Larry Niven

    Yet another industry complaining that the internet is forcing them to change their business model. Newspapers, magazines and print in general is going the way of buggy whips and slide rules. Adapt or die.

    Saying that, the profession of journalism is important. While “crowdsourcing” can be a good source of first hand information, the current issues in Iran is a great example of this. Likewise it is fickle, demonstrated by how fast Iran was displaced by Michael Jackson in the “digital eye”.

    The current state of blogging largely vacillates between “personal diaries” and the “Op-Ed page” of your local newspaper. Some good, some bad, mostly an infinite number of monkeys continuing to fail to produce the works of Shakespeare.

    IMHO, I don’t think we have seen the face of the new media yet. But the change is coming, like it or not.

  3. BJN

    “Flourishing” online? Do you have revenue figures to back that up?

    Sorry, a journalist would provide that kind of information in a well written news article. A blogger is free to put out as much half-assed writing as they want, in fact low content, high volume writing is encouraged by the format. There are still valuable standards for what constitutes responsible, documented, multi-sourced real journalism. Unfortunately they’re not given the respect they deserve, especially by blog pundits who like to pretend they’re important news writers without putting in the effort to do it well.

    The only change I see coming is a poor signal to noise ratio created by people who confuse typing with writing.

  4. Stone Age Scientist

    Yes, I’ve seen this issue float around the internet before, and also read some journalists’ views on the subject matter (ironically, on the internet). However, Phil, anything that we perceive bright and rosy ends when outsourcing, which now becomes very easy, sets in to replace things. This has been the primary concern of Maureen Dowd at NYT.

    A Penny for My Thoughts?

    Aaargh! BA is addicting!! I need to go to sleep. It’s 3 am here. Goodnight. Or Good Morning, whichever suits you. :)

  5. RL

    Certainly, calling journalism “broken, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly” will get a less than friendly response.

    But I think I agree. Not just in science coverage but the rest of the news industry. Many journalists have forgotten the standards that BJN refers to and have become advocates instead of investigators. What should be news articles are really opinion pieces. Scandals involving mainstream media papers such as the Washington Post Salon events or reported decisions in many news rooms to sit on stories embarassing to their causes convince me that its a good thing if those dinosaurs die.

    I think that print journalisms trouble began with cable news networks and is just made worse by free internet sources. Unless they can find other revenue sources they are doomed. So far few have been able to add content worthy of charging for it.

    And I don’t think bloggers will fill the hole left by the collapse of quality journalism. I’ve seen too many blogs not do their homework, pass on false stories or obviously shade things to their point of view. Internet readers will have to become discriminating to know where to go for what information. Where to go for astronomy info, where to go for hard news, where to go for political news, etc.

    The good news is that you will have lots of choices. The bad news is that you will have to choose wisely.

  6. BA says: “media and journalists taking hold of this not-so-new medium are the ones who will still be around in the long run.”

    This is analogous to movies vs. TV in the early postwar period. Most movie studios tried to ignore TV, or maybe one-up it by using more color films, widescreen, etc. One who embraced it openly was Disney who not only didn’t see it at a threat, but as a solution to his problem. He was trying to pull together financing for his “theme park” idea, but most lenders skoffed at the idea. The main objection was that while castles and frontier forts and jungle rides were great concepts, they were also hideously expensive compared to the amusement park standards of the day. They felt that the park would fail before word-of-mouth spread about how wonderful it was.

    Walt’s solution was to go to the TV networks and proposed a weekly one-hour program. He would open up the Disney film vaults to show not only his cartoons and animated features, but adventure films and new production specifically for the show. The catch was that each show would have a “theme” relating to one of the four lands of the park, and each would be introduced by “uncle Walt” putting the show in context before it started.

    The network that bit was ABC and the “Disneyland” TV show debuted in the Fall of 1954. Not only did Walt get to pitch his “theme park” concept directly to the public in thier livingrooms, but he was getting paid for it. What an amazing concept! Revenue from the program was a major part of the park’s construction financing.

    The show was an immediate hit earning a 39 share in the Nielsons (placing it #6 for the season) and it won an Emmy for best variety show (figures provided for BJN @3 above). By the time Disneyland Park opened in July 1955, the crowds were pounding at the gates, so to speak. Even with a disasterous opening day (broadcast live by ABC) and a shakey first few months, the pent-up demand was unstoppable and they weathered that first year just fine.

    I understand the company is still doing well.

    – Jack

    P.S. – Trivia bit: the original admission to Disneyland was 25¢ for kids and 50¢ for adults!

  7. JT

    BJN: “Sorry, a journalist would provide that kind of information in a well written news article. A blogger is free to put out as much half-assed writing as they want, in fact low content, high volume writing is encouraged by the format.”

    If the articles were well written we would not be having this discussion. When you get right down to it, blogs shouldn’t be a threat to professional journalism, primarily because those journalists should be doing their job much better than any amateur could possibly manage. There should simply be no comparison. The fact that they are being completely outclassed is terms of both quantity and quality by those “half-assed” amateurs is an embarrassment, and I don’t mean to the bloggers.

  8. StarDuff

    I think people can become confused as to what is “real” science, ” surreal” science, and what is “NOT” science. If they(the reporter) has no background in the subject of which they are reporting that becomes problematic.

    Tons of stuff propagated on the internet is “old news” just rehashed into something new and posted somewhere else. At least 1/3 of it is certainly NOT news or a blatant lie in a ploy for free advertisement or marketing. I find at times people pay no attention to the source which they gather their information from. Take that into account and you run into credibility issues, think “enquirer magazine”. No one wants to look like the 6,000 year old idiot burned with stupidity. To report on the internet from various sources you have got to READ what you are reporting. You need to know your sources and you should have a wonderful (organic) memory. It is nothing like a teleprompter aka effortless. (not that journalism is)

    I wonder if having all these skills rolled into one person that can physically sit and read all day long (think time) and comprehends what they are reading might be a bit harder to come by then general population gathers.

    Some journalist are of course sub-terrific. It might not be the proposal of static you are hitting on. You may be mistaking “LALALA” for lack of any of these skills. Not everyone comes with a glass that is full. I’m pretty sure mine is only 1/3 filled at best.

    People have a HARD time dealing with and initiating change within their “norm”. END

  9. Steve Novella does make a statement of faith:

    Forward looking outfits are doing this [looking at the internet as a solution not a problem], but have yet to hit upon a viable business model – but they will eventually.

    I hope he’s right, but it seems entirely possible that we’ll have a world soon without reliable primary newsgathering (which is what I think the essence of journalism is and, with all due respect, not what you do, Phil). Corporations will be able to pay for wildly expensive ‘intelligence reports’, and the rest of us will make do with trying to be skeptical about the gossip and rumours we pick up on the web.

  10. Arj

    ditto to “Lee” #2 above…

    Science blogging is in its infancy with paltry few blogs of any consistent science/writing quality — so it’s not just that traditional media don’t “get it;” it’s that they don’t much respect what they do get (…to their own peril). Clearly the new media are here to stay, change, and push the future agenda, as they constantly improve. And watching it all evolve in real time is fascinating!

  11. Just remember journalists, on the whole, are no more nor no less informed about science than the general public. And we shouldn’t expect them to be as they just reflect the wider population.

    I’m not talking about the specialists who are happy in their little ‘playpen’ on the science pages, but the reporters who work on the front end of the paper. This ignorance only rears its head when science makes it to the front and suddenly you have journalists and columnists reporting and passing comment on subjects they have very little understanding of (the MRA debacle, for instance).

    A parallel would be the recent collapse of the banks when suddenly every journo was expected to be an economics expert when they plainly weren’t.

    Trying to inform the public on a subject you can’t grasp yourself is a recipe for trouble. Couple this with, generally, less journalists being forced to produce more copy and you can understand why many things go unchecked these days.

    One solution is to create a more scientific-literate society of course!

    As for ‘proper’ journalism v blogging – more journalists are becoming bloggers and in the long run bloggers will become journalists. We’re still in the early growing pains of a new media.

  12. Charles Boyer

    I just love the cliche’d idea that print journos are oh-so-responsible and that bloggers are “half-assed writers.”

    If one thinks that print or broadcast journos are “responsible” because they happen to work for a publication or broadcast outlet, think again. Ever heard of Jayson Blair? Ever watched the musings of the various cable “news” stations?

    Then there’s the assumption that because a blogger publishes opinions and viewpoints they are invalid…because they are bloggers. Talk about circular logic, eh?

    Now go ahead and insert the joke about living in their mother’s basements here, it usually follows. That’s the one that amuses me the most, not only because it is trite but also because it is inaccurate. I suppose Mark Cuban lives in his Mom’s house, for example. And Phil too. Riiiiiiiight.

    Journos typically know nothing about everything and write like it. There are good ones and there are bad ones. There are good bloggers and bad ones too, and that’s simply the nature of the Information Bazaar we live in.

  13. gruebait

    I’m actually surprised at the number of printed word peddlers who do ‘get it’ or are ‘getting it’. They have pretty much had the same deal since Gutenberg.

    Contrast that with the music peddlers, who have been fighting the same battle, over and over, since the invention of the player piano, and they still don’t get it.

  14. Jeremy

    If blogs ever consistently elevate themselves above a mix of opinion page and teenage myspace narcissism-athon they might actually become real sources of information. Until then, the decay of real journalism is a very dire problem indeed.

  15. Kirk

    Lot of blanket statements being made in these comments! Some balanced statements, too. The fact is, like Charles says, there are good journalists and bad ones, good bloggers and bad ones.

    The “old media” folks had been trying to adjust to the demands and opportunities provided by the Internet, but they had been doing it too slowly. The current economic crisis has forced them to compress their 10-year plans into one-year plans, and we’ll see how that goes.

    But imagine a world in which traditional media completely collapses. There would be a real concern what the vast majority of bloggers would write about, since the vast majority of blogging consists of linking to other stories and padding that with opinion. The most valuable role blogging has played so far, IMO, is calling attention to important stories that are otherwise getting short shrift. The second most valuable role has been correcting mainstream coverage that has gone astray.

    The biggest weakness of blogging right now is its circular nature. Blogs tend to have audiences that consist of people who all, basically, agree with each other. There is a certain level of discussion and disagreement, but you tend to have people who are basically on the same page. It’s the same problem you get with talk radio, although blogging and online commenting require a certain higher level of literacy than that required to participate in talk radio.

    Until the blogosphere can truly provide a means of crossing ideologies and bringing information to people who need to know it (not just who want to know it or want to have their own ideas confirmed and supplemented), this will be a major weakness compared to mainstream media. That’s not to say that the mainstream media might not collapse without this problem getting fixed, but if it does, I worry that our discourse will also collapse into nothing but bubbles of people talking amongst themselves and patting each other on the back.

  16. Pieter Kok

    The loss of newspapers and to some extent the news channels (look at how CNN is effectively becoming an internet browser) is a real problem: bloggers and news aggregates like HuffPo do not send correspondents out, because that costs money. Once the correspondents are no longer there to verify stories and disseminate them via reputable channels, it will become extremely hard to keep track of what’s going on in the world.

  17. Davidlpf

    There are some benefits to the blogging and twittering the news. The new channels of infomation allows news from places Iran to get out when ofiicial channels are blocked.

  18. Eighthman

    Regarding SCIENCE journalism vs. SCIENCE blogging, then, yes, I think blogging will be an important component for good material. However, I think that science blogs and podcasts and whatnot are “preaching to the choir” — those that read and participate in blogs like this are the ones who are already interested in science, and for the most part, readers already know a lot about science. Any attempt to get the rest of society to learn about scientific issues will require science journalism in mainstream media. So if blogging supersedes newspapers and magazines, the cause will be lost.

  19. As a journalist, some of the comments are insulting, and some are right on.

    Discounting bad journalists for a moment, having a journalist who doesn’t have a background in the field they happen to be writing about on a given day shouldn’t really be a problem. A good journalist seeks out experts to interview about the story, then mixes that expert’s comments (and possibly opinions) in with the facts of the story. Ethically, writers are generally obligated to remove themselves from the story, which is a stark contrast with broadcast journalism.

    Secondly, the only way we’re going to thrive in this new environment is to provide people with high-value content. There’s plenty of rubbish out there on blogs, YouTube, Twitter, etc., but there’s also good stuff. Professional journalists need to distinguish themselves with quality. Oh yeah, and it needs to be compelling, because the mantra of “why should I care?” applies now more than ever.

  20. José

    The only thing I would disagree with is the notion that science journalism is on the decline. There may be fewer resources devoted to it now, but I might even argue that the quality of work has improved overall. It just seems to be on the decline because there are now so many people with a forum to point out errors. As the article pointed out, savvy journalists have and are using the proliferation of science blogs to increase the quality of their work.

  21. Journalism hmm…
    Read ye and weep. The credulous of this piece of “journalism” should make one despair…

  22. credulousness. sigh.

  23. Charles Boyer

    “Oh yeah, and it needs to be compelling, because the mantra of “why should I care?” applies now more than ever.”

    And there starts the slippery slope to sensationalism and un-truth.

  24. Steve A

    For my job, I actually cover a lot of science journalism and science bloggers so its easy to look at them.

    While there are exceptions to every generalization, I have to say that for the most part, science bloggers do very little reporting. They may be able to dissect an issue very well, but when they announce news, it’s nothing more than regurgitating a press release or passing on another’s writing with minor modification. In many ways, some blogs are like local TV news.

    For instance, a few posts ago, Phil, you passed on information about found Apollo tapes that turned out not to be true. A reporter might have confirmed the facts first or found more interviews before printing the story.

    Again, this is not always the case, and one example does not mean good information can’t come from blogs. Blogs can do a great job analyzing information because they aren’t limited to a certain space on a page. I especially like when a blogger who knows his stuff can explain why something is important or when another person’s arguments are true or false.

    What I find funny is that journalists seem a lot more accepting of blogs (a lot of reporters have blogs on their paper’s websites) than bloggers are of journalists. I think new media has to come off its high horse or else it may be setting itself up for its own demise.

  25. BJN should have read my post that Phil linked to and agreed with. I specifically said that primary journalism is important and needs to continue. There is a symbiotic relationship between primary journalism and science blogging. It is also rapidly evolving – we will know, probably, how it will shake out in 5-10 years, unless something else stirs the pot again.

    Jamie wrote: “Discounting bad journalists for a moment, having a journalist who doesn’t have a background in the field they happen to be writing about on a given day shouldn’t really be a problem. A good journalist seeks out experts to interview about the story, then mixes that expert’s comments (and possibly opinions) in with the facts of the story.”

    I disagree, and I think this is exactly where many journalists get into trouble. You cannot just ask a few experts and get a good feel for a complex or controversial topic. This is the mistake of confusing the authority of an individual scientist with the authority of the community as a whole. The journalist will get a tiny slice of opinion, which may be way off the consensus. I see this all the time.

    Journalists also fall into the trap of false balance – they balance both sides of a controversy, even when they are inherently not balanced. This is because they do not have the background to recognize the 5% minority opinion, or sometimes even lone crank, for what it is.

    We need primary science journalism, but currently the quality is highly variable and decreasing. Science bloggers are generally not doing primary journalism (but sometimes we do – the lines are blurred), and the best science bloggers, the ones who have risen to the top (like Phil), provide a much needed analysis and correction of mainstream science journalism.

  26. bob

    Jesus. More internet self congratulation. It’s the new revolution! Crap. Utter crap. The same people with money and free time are reading the same stuff only now it is online. Newspapers were just as biased and one sided as any blog is. The only reason they are hurting is because they lost their add revenue to craigslist.

    Ad money. That is the only thing that will define the medium. Writing never paid for newsprint and it doesn’t pay for fiber optic cables.

    No blog would be worth anything if it wasn’t plastered with adds. Stop congratulating yourself. Your not embracing a new medium your part of a new revenue stream. There is no new audience, it is the same people. They are just in front of a computer now. And for every site like BA there is a site that will tell you vaccines cause autism, probably two or three. The biggest proof that the internet is no revolution in communication or intelligence is that instead of filtering the crap it just spreads it wider and easier. It hasn’t made information literacy more widespread its just made it easier to confirm what you already thought.

  27. BJN: You wrote,” ‘Flourishing’ online? Do you have revenue figures to back that up?
    Sorry, a journalist would provide that kind of information in a well written news article.”

    You have a point, and I’d like to see those revenue figures as well, comparing them to media sites that actually do release their finances.

    Those who don’t back up their statements are no better than Rush Limbaugh, who claims 50 million listeners, with no evidence to back it up:

    Why Don’t We Just Pretend Rush Limbaugh has 50 Million Listeners?

    I appreciate Phil’s solid science. As an online journalist, I’ll be the first to admit there’s much more involved than simply starting a blog and writing. Media liability insurance alone is costly. Convincing others to invest their ads in what many see as a still nascent medium makes it all the more difficult.

    We do best when we stick to “old school” journalism: who, what, when, where, why and how; it’s critical for us to let people know where reporting ends and where our opinions begin.

    Phil mixes the two, and, in part, I read what he writes because I have faith that his science is accurate and unbiased. (Yes, Phil, faith does matter. You may have a degree or several, but, as one of my colleagues likes to say, it doesn’t matter if a doctor has a diploma on the wall if in fact he graduated at the bottom of his class. I read your blog because astronomers I know and trust tell me this is a good place to learn.)

    The fact that Phil argues for his science with editorial commentary doesn’t bother me much of the time.

  28. koffeekat99

    Steven Novella wrote: “You cannot just ask a few experts and get a good feel for a complex or controversial topic. This is the mistake of confusing the authority of an individual scientist with the authority of the community as a whole. The journalist will get a tiny slice of opinion, which may be way off the consensus.”

    So how would science bloggers, or even scientists-turned-journalists, solve that problem? If we fault the interviewed experts for driving an agenda, we’d have to also fault an expert trying to do the job of a reporter — maybe more so, since there’s a chance that person would be inclined to seek “balanced” comment from sources they themselves agree with. You can’t say that one person fails to represent the community and then ask one person to do just that.

    Overall, I don’t think you *have* to be a scientist to be a good science writer, any more than you *have* to be a professional athlete to write well about sports. It all comes down to approach. People complain all the time that the trick is not to teach science as if it’s a list of facts, but as a way of thinking. The same is true for journalism. “Bad” journalism can fall into a formula: sensational headline + oversimplified list of reasons the lay public should care + maybe a comment from another expert. Good journalists will be critical thinkers, have a healthy dose of skepticism, be willing to ask thoughtful and sometimes challenging questions, and know when and where to seek balanced opinions. That applies to any beat, for any readership.

  29. koffee – I did not say you have to be a scientist to be a good science journalist. But I do think you have to have a good understanding of science. You need to understand the difference between the opinions of an individual and those of the community, and you should have a feel for what the current consensus is on issues – at least enough to know to question the opinions of an individual that might be off the consensus.

    And yes, and individual scientist writing about their area of research will give you their individual bias, tempered by their critical thinking and journalistic skills and willingness to fairly represent other opinions. In the end you still need this, and a good science journalist can have this too without being a scientists.

    Also, keep in mind, most scientist bloggers write outside their area of expertise also (like me). There, I am just an interested and informed lay person, not an expert. We criticize bad science blogging as much as we do bad science journalism (and in my opinion the lines are increasingly blurring)

    To emphasize again – our point is not that science bloggers are good and journalists are bad, but that bad science journalists don’t understand science and/or the specific needs of science journalism and science journalists and science bloggers would do well to work together.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Thanks, people (especially Novella) clarified a lot on the phenomena.

    The biggest weakness of blogging right now is its circular nature. Blogs tend to have audiences that consist of people who all, basically, agree with each other.

    That is because blogs, as much of the rest of the web, are social cooperative in nature while journalism (and science) is authoritative elitist for good reasons.

    But to get that kind of responsive audience blogs have to compete. So there is no lack of competitive views (or approaches to blogging), nor of web services that tries to bring them out. (With different levels of success, to be sure.)


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