Depending on whom you ask, Fiona Fox is either saving science journalism or destroying it.
believes that scientists can have a huge impact on the way the media cover scientific issues, by engaging more quickly and more effectively with the stories that are influencing public debate and attitudes to science.
In theory, this seems like a no-brainer. But as the Nature story points out, the Science Media Center has
attracted some vehement critics, who say that they foster uncritical media coverage by spoon-feeding information to reporters, that they promote science too aggressively — the SMC has been called ‘science’s PR agency’ — and that they sometimes advance the views of industry.
Personally, I like to spoon-feed from multiple sources, so nobody feels they own me outright.
Seriously, I don’t get this criticism of the Science Media Center. Reporters get fed information all the time–from government officials, industry hacks, agenda-driven NGO’s, etc. (And yes, every reporter has a stable of go-to sources that he can turn to for a catchy quote reliably emailed before deadline.) Good reporters seek out information from multiple venues and learn to trust some more than others, based on numerous factors.
Still, good reporters writing about climate change, for example, will not be overly reliant on Greenpeace or James Hansen or the Science Media Center.
Speaking of climate change, I seem to recall two much applauded initiatives rolled out several years ago, the objective being
to provide high-quality information to the media and the public.
Do any journalists that have used the Climate Science Rapid Response Team believe they were spoon-fed information? And even if they were, no self-respecting reporter would rely unduly on just one source.
Ditto for the relationship between journalists and the Science Media Center. So if you’re worried about a science-advocacy organization influencing how science is covered in the media, are you also worried about Greenpeace and the Climate Science Rapid Response Team influencing climate change coverage?
If you are, your beef shouldn’t be with them. You should only care how a reporter uses the various information streams at his or her disposal. If one source is being favored over others, that’s not the source’s fault.
Last November, somebody who is now at the center of a media storm said this:
The way our media is currently constructed, that story isn’t being told in a way that actually reaches and connects with people, and has a consequence. Most of us are very ignorant of what is going on.
Who do you think might have said this and what is that story about? Global warming? Rural poverty? The war on drugs?
It was Mike Daisey, explaining backstage in a New York theater, why he undertook to tell a story that he believes journalism wasn’t equipped to tell. That story, about his experiences investigating a factory in China that makes iphones, was adapted in January for the popular This American Life radio program. On Friday, This American Life retracted that show and ran an extraordinary segment that unravels the fabrications in Daisy’s tale, which were recently uncovered by another reporter.
As Max Fisher lays out in The Atlantic, here’s the unfortunate truth that Daisey has undermined:
When Mike Daisey lied to national radio audiences on This American Life, lied to the 888,000 people who downloaded the podcast (the most in the show’s history), and lied to who-knows-how-many theater audiences over two years of performing his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, he wasn’t wrong about the Chinese labor abuses that go into making iPads and other beloved American gadgets. He wasn’t wrong that Chinese workers are often subjected to horrific conditions, wasn’t wrong that Apple’s supervision of its contractor’s factories has been problematic, and wasn’t wrong that we American consumers bear an indirect but troubling moral responsibility for these abuses.
Most importantly, Mike Daisey wasn’t wrong that it is possible for Chinese authorities and Apple to substantially improve labor conditions — without making their products any more expensive or less competitive — and that American consumers can help make this happen. But he was wrong that embellishing his story would help, that bad behavior in service of a good cause ever does.
A second cautionary lesson involves the use of storytelling to advance a cause. In his analysis of the second This American Life episode, David Carr observes:
Mr. Daisey, to his credit, appeared on the show for an awkward and occasionally excruciating interview, but was mostly evasive, arguing that some characters and events had been invented in service of a greater narrative truth.
This is known as the means-justify-the-ends rationale.
Carr also hints at something (“I am a longtime fan of This American Life, but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true.”) that Jay Rosen pokes at:
Is it possible to fall too deeply in love with “stories?” Where [host] Ira Glass did not go in his Retraction but should have. http://bit.ly/y5lqZJ
You could almost say that the [This American Life] show fetishizes the “story” as object. I think Ira Glass could have dug a little deeper into why he and his team made that fatal error and broadcast the segment even though they could not fully check it with the [Chinese] translator…If they had done that, they might have begun to question whether it is possible to fall too deeply in love with “stories” and their magical effects; whether that kind of love erodes skepticism, even when you are telling yourself to be skeptical; whether Ira and his colleagues in some way wanted Daisey’s stories to be 100 percent true, whether this wish interfered with their judgment, whether there isn’t something just a little too cultish about the cult of “the story” on This American Life.
Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.
Two recent articles about science journalism carry headlines that reflect a tension between two modes of thinking on climate change reporting. The Guardian piece asserts in its headline:
Science journalists should be asking questions and deflating exaggeration
Michael Lemonick, a veteran science journalist, asks:
Should we tell the whole truth about climate change?
The two articles address separate journalistic issues (the Guardian piece does not reference climate change), but to my mind, they each are relevant to a larger, fundamental concern that dogs environmental reporters on the climate beat: Insufficient context for and skepticism of claims made in climate studies and reports.
Is the problem with reporters (or headline writers?) who simplify and overly dramatize climate findings? (See here and here, for example.) Or is the problem with reporters who uncritically regurgitate the findings from NGO’s and think tanks? (See here and here.) I tend to think there’s ample evidence of both. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that there are plenty of times when climate reporters don’t allow themselves to be spoon fed. (See here, for one notable instance.)
Ironically, despite the perception that media has exaggerated the dangers of global warming, some climate activists (and climate scientists) often criticize mainstream reporters for not ringing enough alarm bells. The charge heard most these days is insufficient linkage of extreme weather to global warming. That whole debate has become a minefield for reporters.
Regardless of what they write, however, there is one constant for journalists on the climate beat: They are assailed from all sides, as I discuss in this new post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.
When I was in high school I had a bunch of money-earning jobs. I raked yards in the Fall (leaf bags galore!), shoveled driveways in the winter, and delivered newspapers year-round. (I really hated those thick Sunday papers back then.) This meant I had cash on hand to feed my record-buying habit and enough to spare for other typical American teenager indulgences. The important thing to keep in mind here is that people paid me to rake the leaves off their lawns, shovel snow from their driveways, and deliver their newspapers everyday.
I had one more gig as a 16-year old: I worked as a sportswriter for my town newspaper. You might be surprised to learn that I was also financially rewarded (per article) for this work. My first bylines were thrilling, but being edited and paid to cover high school sports made it feel like I had joined the ranks of professional journalism. Looking back, I’m sure I would have done it for nothing. I didn’t think the editor would hire me, much less pay me. But he did both. And in doing so, he served as my first mentor and instilled in me this crazy idea that writers get paid for their output. Those were the pre-internet days.
Today, things aren’t so cut and dry. Professional writers compete with hobbyists and experts from other fields in a digital media landscape that is flush with content. On the plus side, this has leveled the playing field and created opportunity for a multitude of voices to be heard. The downside is that this surplus quantity has diluted quality and created separate editorial standards for the print and online product at newspapers and magazines.
The problem with this is that most readers no longer distinguish between what is online and in print, or between an article that was professionally vetted and that which was thrown online with minimal scrutiny. Some publications, it seems, don’t bother to make these distinctions clear.
Consider, for example, The Atlantic, an influential thought leader and prestige publication in the United States. I challenge anyone to scroll around its website and be able to distinguish between the professionally vetted articles (those that were fact-checked and underwent numerous edits and revisions) and those that received glancing attention.
Why is this important? Look at the article The Atlantic published online earlier this week, which was widely read and shared. It also contained many significant errors, which the writer (to his credit) owned up to after knowledgeable critics tore it apart. (I have discussed the article here, here, and here.) If you look at the editor’s note at the article, acknowledging its inaccuracies, you’ll see the piece is now identified as the author’s “most recent Flash in the Pan column, which is syndicated by a number of newspapers and magazine websites.” That would be a food column.
However, in the article’s initial incarnation, The Atlantic did not make this clear. It’s fair to assume that many readers thought the piece, because it was stamped with The Atlantic’s prestigious imprimatur, had passed the high editorial standards of the magazine. That gives the article a gravitas it didn’t deserve.
Now there’s a related, equally troublesome issue that I foreshadowed at the beginning of this post: the matter of financial compensation. It is not for me to say whether the author of that particular Atlantic article was paid or not by the magazine. That is his business, as he has made clear to me. But it is my impression that a good many of the online-only contributors do not get paid. I’m ready to stand corrected (in fact, I’d love it if I was). So if articles that cost nothing are routinely posted online by The Atlantic, how much time do you think editors are spending with the copy? Not much, I’m guessing.
The issue of writers giving away their copy for free is a sore subject for many of us who are accustomed to being paid for our writing. The Huffington post model has been widely (and rightfully) deplored, but it is also being increasingly emulated in many precincts. Personally, I’ve alway been paid for blog posts or online articles that have appeared elsewhere. Recently, I reached out to Barry Estabrook, a writer I used to work with (and pay) regularly when I was an editor at Audubon magazine in the 2000s, after I noticed that he contributed to various online venues, including The Atlantic. Last year, Estabrook published a book called Tomatoland. I asked him straight out if he was getting paid for his online pieces at The Atlantic and other sites. Via email, he responded:
I have a policy of not writing anything (other than direct promotion for Tomatoland) for free, a policy I would perhaps waive if the editors and executives at these websites were also working for free.
The issue of science bloggers, I should hasten to add, is a different kettle of fish. I’m bothered by journalists and science writers who give away their talents at those network/group blog sites. That said, I’m aware that these outlets, with their free back-end support and brand name perches, offer intangibles that can’t be measured in a bi-weekly paycheck. Those who latch on to such places get a seat at the grown-ups table and can make themselves heard over the din. If they do it well enough, that might even translate into gainfully employed work from other grown-ups that are willing to pay. Additionally, if you have a book or some other pet project to hawk, then a bloghorn is virtually a must. So I get the value of free labor under those circumstances.
But let’s not kid ourselves, either. All told, the proliferation of content farms in media and the expectation that the content be cost-free, is not without its costs to the reputation of journalism and the livelihoods of its professionals.
UPDATE: Ed Yong, via twitter, says it’s “worth noting that all sci-blog networks assoc’d w/ media brands do pay. Some pittance, others well.”
Last week, the Huffington Post unveiled a new science section. Science bloggers and science writers aren’t sure what to make of it. Some, such as Mark Hoofnagle, are cautiously hopeful. As he notes, the Huffington Post has up to now been notorious (at least in the science blogosphere) as a “clearinghouse” for “liberal crankery,” featuring things “like Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine crankery, or Bill Maher’s anti-pharma paranoia.” Can the site turn a new leaf? “Time will tell,” he says.
Carl Zimmer, using more restrained language, also noted the Huffington Post’s reputation for “checkered coverage” of science. But he is willing to give the new section (called HuffPo Science) a chance to prove itself:
I for one am ready to give the Huffington Post another look. If they can bring real science to their huge readership, that will be a great thing.
Orac, unsurprisingly, is not taking such a charitable view. He remains skeptical and asks “scientists and science-based bloggers to think a bit before joining up (or even after having joined up)” as writers for the new section. This is why, he argues:
The quackery is all still there. So is the antivaccine propaganda. It hasn’t gone away. It’s just (mostly) not in the medicine section, Apparently the editors tried to keep things science-based in the beginning, but it’s infiltrated the section since then. At least, the soft woo has, such as supplements, diet woo, and acupuncture. The hardcore stuff like homeopathy, antivaccine pseudoscience, and the like is posted elsewhere on HuffPo. It’s still there, though, and it still taints the reputation of the entire enterprise.
This latest evolution of the Huffington Post, with its hydra-headed model–an (unpaid) assemblage of amateur and professional voices, combined with appropriated and original journalism–is quite the mishmash. Not too long ago, journalistic ethics watchdogs fretted about the wall crumbling between editorial and advertising.
The success of the Huffington Post makes those worries seem quaint. For it has blurred the lines between what is fact-based and what is half-baked, between what is original and what is purloined.
On this note, an interesting comment at Orac’s site related to HuffPo’s new science section could also apply, in a larger sense, to the entire website:
If I have a bucket of icecream in 1 hand and a bucket of poop in the other and just the tiniest spec of poop gets in the icecream, the whole bucket is ruined.
Yet no matter how much icecream you put in the bucket of poop, its still just a bucket of poop.
To put it more delicately, is the Huffington Post’s journalistic product tainted by some of its unsavory associations and practices? In this anxious age of media upheaval, that doesn’t appear to be a question that many in the profession (including the high priests) are much interested in. (Where’s Jay Rosen when you need him? Oh, wait, here he is, talking about how HuffPo could be an ideological innovator in journalism.) Well, I don’t know about you, but when I scroll around the HuffPo site, I see a jumble of indistinguishable content. It’s all thrown together on one canvass, separated only by news and subject categories.
Maybe the new science section, in pursuit of of some journalistic cred, will keep the New Age bloggers and assorted cranks off its main page. That would constitute a small achievement of sorts.
Headlines like this are problematic, though:
In Vitro Meat: Will ‘Frankenfood’ Save the Planet or Just Gross out Consumers?
The story itself is a straightforward, well-written summary of a notable scientific development and its implications. But it is not served well by the headline’s unfortunate use of a politically charged, biased term (frankenfood).
It is too soon to judge the worthiness of the Huffington Post’s new science section, but based on the website’s ill-fitting and unsightly Frankenjournalism model, we have a pretty good idea of what it is going to end up looking like.
There is a popular belief in some quarters that the media is timid with its coverage on climate change. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The dominant narrative for some time has been that global warming is real and will soon wreak havoc with the planet and civilization.
Some in the climate concerned community think this message should be be drummed into us until we submit. At the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I argue that this approach is having the opposite effect. Sara Peach, a colleague there, discusses some recent examples of engagement that is a refreshing departure from the traditional gloom and doom mantra.
Roger Cohn, the editor of Yale Environment 360, conducted an interesting interview with Mary Evelyn Tucker, a scholar who studies the intersection of ecology and religion. This is a perennial interest of mine, even though I’m a life-long atheist. Most people in the world (including many scientists) possess a religious faith or seek out some kind of spiritual connection that can’t be satisfied by science.
Make of that what you will, but it’s a reality that can’t be wished, argued, or scornfully waved away. So count me among those who believe that science and religion can coexist. There really is no choice, either; they have to. (Yes, that puts me at odds with folks like Jerry Coyne, and this is something I intend to explore further in the near future.) One reason I say this is that people come at environmental issues and concerns from different places. If your object is to expand the constituency for the environment, it makes no sense to alienate those with different worldviews who might share your end goal.
Which brings me back to the Yale interview with Tucker, who agrees
that scientific facts are critical and necessary, and policy papers and legislation are indispensable. But they may not be sufficient when it comes to dealing with an environmental crisis. That may require other disciplines and other ways of looking at the world, including religion.
Tucker is also one of the producers of a new film that showcases the splendor of the natural world as a means to connect with people on a different level. Here’s an excerpt of the Yale Q & A that speaks to why she took this approach:
Yale Environment 360: I was struck by the fact that your film, Journey of the Universe, ultimately is a celebration, unlike a lot of environmental-related literature and film that’s filled with a heavy dose of doom and gloom. This film is optimistic and even celebratory in many ways. Why did you choose that approach?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: We decided that so many people are aware of the huge and complex environmental problems we’re facing “” ranging from climate change to toxicities to species extinction and so on “” that people are so overwhelmed that they go into paralysis and despair. We didn’t want to take people there. We wanted to engage their sense of awe and wonder, because humans are moved fundamentally by either wonder or by disaster. We wanted to draw out the wonder.
So in this film, we put the consequences of humanity’s planetary presence “” our burgeoning population, our overwhelming resource use, all the consequences of having exploded in one century from 2 billion people to 7 billion people “” and we put that in the last 10 minutes of the film, where we do speak about humanity’s impact and our current environmental crisis. We felt it was more effective there, because first you need to get a sense of the unfolding of a universe that is 14 billion years old, the evolution of our planet, and life emerging out of this tremendous journey. We wanted to give a sense of how late we humans arrived, and yet, how in a relatively short period of time, our impact has been enormous.
Now what would interest me is if 1) this approach can work better that the usual eco-apocalypse fare, and 2) it can appeal to a broad religious demographic.
As someone who’s long been interested in paleoenvironmental research–especially with respect to archaeology–I have a soft spot for tree ring researchers. The development of tree ring chronologies plays a major role (under-appreciated by the public) in the understanding of many ancient cultures and the prehistoric land use and climatic changes of their time
So it’s been a little frustrating that the extent of my recent twitter exchanges with one paleo researcher has focused on climategate 2, when I would prefer to be learning about what environmental reconstructions he’s currently at work on, and what new knowledge it is yielding. But Columbia University’s Kevin Anchukaitis has been exceptionally gracious and thoughtful in our bite-sized discussions, of which there has been much disagreement between us. Today, he’s given me something to think about it again, with this tweet:
Being in ‘The Middle’ has this almost mythic quality to some. In science, it’s often just halfway between a right and a wrong answer.
I think Kevin makes a fair point, that the proverbial middle ground might also be a no-mans land, where truth can never be found. But I also think it depends on where you define the middle. Climate change, as it is discussed and interpreted in the public sphere, does not reflect the full spectrum of perspectives. Rather, most debate is characterized by hyperbole and spin from opposite ends of the spectrum. In this world, which journalists must navigate, being in the middle is not such a bad place to be.
Some of the commentary about how the media covered last week’s big climate sensitivity study in Science prompted me to explore underlying issues that have already been identified by people much smarter than me. Have a read over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.