Science and Journalism, Intersecting

By Sean Carroll | March 24, 2009 9:23 am

We’re happy to welcome The Intersection, featuring the bloggy stylings of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, to their new home here at Discover Blogs! Anyone who isn’t already following their excellent work is encouraged to go have a look.

It’s great timing, as Sheril and Chris are experts in the intersection of science and journalism (among other intersections), and that’s going to be a hot topic in the days to come. There was something of a dustup a few months ago, set off by dueling Bloggingheads dialogues, first from science bloggers Abbie Smith and Ed Yong, then by journalists George Johnson and John Horgan. Apparently Abbie was questioning the role of journalists in an era where scientists can reach out themselves through blogs, and George responded in a somewhat intemperate fashion. (He later apologized for the tone, although not really the sentiment.) Much back-and-forth ensued — see responses by Brian Switek and Chad Orzel. And just last week, Geoff Brumfiel at Nature wrote a feature exploring the relationship between science journalism and science blogs, with the tagline: “But can the one replace the other?”

Well, no. Science blogging will never replace science journalism, any more than other kinds of blogging will replace other kinds of journalism. (Of course blogging can include just about any kind of writing, including what we usually call “journalism”; I’m thinking here of the specific case of people whose day job is doing science, and who blog in their spare time.) They have very different roles. Journalists are paid to cover stories of wide interest, to get multiple perspectives on new results, and to be as objective as possible in separating the wheat from the chaff. Science bloggers are sometimes going to blog about something newsworthy, but most can’t be bothered trying to cover every interesting story, and years will pass before a typical blogger picks up a phone to interview a source before posting. Instead, they bring a special expertise and inside knowledge to a field that no general-purpose journalist can hope to match.

I’m not sure what the source of controversy really is. It seems perfectly obvious that science blogging should enrich and extend conventional science journalism, not aspire to replace it. (See also sensible takes from Jessica Palmer at bioephemera and Curtis Brainard at the Columbia Journalism Review. [Hey! A blogger and a journalist!]) Movies didn’t replace live theater, airplanes didn’t replace cars, mammals didn’t replace birds. These are things that serve different functions.

The conversation we should be having is how the two forms can work together. How great would it be, for example, if major newspapers regularly linked to relevant blog entries by real experts when a big science story broke? It might actually require some effort to make something like that happen, just because of the way journalism these days works, including the tradition of embargoed results. When the Bullet Cluster results indicating the existence of dark matter were first released, I was lucky enough to be a participant in the original press conference, so I had access to the papers before most people did. Consequently, I was able to write an informed post that could be pointed to by people looking for an expert-level discussion. But ordinarily, such pre-embargo access is only given to professional journalists. If the communities worked a bit more closely together, we might be able to more regularly combine the reportage and explanatory skills of professional journalists with the in-depth perspective of professional scientists.

Meanwhile, newspapers are dying. CNN shut down its science division. The amount of real science journalism is shrinking dramatically, and any scientist who thinks that’s a good thing for the field as a whole is living in crazy land. The old ways of doing business are crumbling, and we have to find new ways to work together.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and the Media
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/ Chris Mooney

    Sean,
    We are so psyched to be here. And yes, we have a ton to say about the topic of this post, mostly in agreement with you….stand by!

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    Related: we recently had a post on the question Do we need science journalists?

  • http://blog.dotphys.net rhett

    When you said “mammals didn’t replace birds. These are things that serve different functions…” I couldn’t stop thinking about chicken and turkey vs. beef and pork. Please excuse my carnivorism.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/laelaps/ Laelaps

    Thanks for the link, Sean!

    “The amount of real science journalism is shrinking dramatically, and any scientist who thinks that’s a good thing for the field as a whole is living in crazy land.”

    Well said.

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    Interesting article here about the decline of newspapers and the future of journalism

    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

  • http://www.michaelbrooks.org/blog Michael Brooks

    I agree that it’s fantastic for everyone to have direct access to the people who are making science news. Where I think the problem lies is in balance. Journalists (full disclosure: I’m one) have the virtue (or at least they are supposed to) of neutrality.

    Of course, no one actually reports science neutrally, however hard they try. Journalists need to fill glaringly empty space and impress their bosses, so do their best to stand up what they’re writing about and make it sound important and newsworthy. We readers all know this by now, and we read between the lines accordingly, sifting the wheat from the chaff.

    My point is, science bloggers are no pureblood saints, either. There’ll be a few years of grace, but there’ll also be a growing realisation that this form of science reporting comes with its own agenda too.

    I do think bloggers could take evasive action on this, though. When you’re part of a team announcing a major result, then you blog about it claiming that you’re giving the full explanation, you have a duty of full disclosure: it should be explicitly stated in your post that you have an interest.

    By the way, I couldn’t find that in the Bullet Cluster post, Sean – did I miss it? That’s not to say it was at all biased; it’s just a matter of establishing the limits of trust. Start that ball rolling now, and blogging new science results will hopefully have a long, fruitful and trustworthy existence.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Michael, I didn’t reveal any conflict of interest because there wasn’t any. I wasn’t a member of the team that did the work, I was just an outside commentator. (I don’t think it’s in most scientists’s nature to hide the fact that they deserve some credit for a particular result.)

  • slc

    As an aspiring science writer and Cosmic Variance fan, I enjoyed this post and look forward to the new blog. I think there is a definite need for better science communication whether it is through blogging, journalism, books, TV, or whatever. You’re right, writers and scientists need to find new ways to work together. Thanks, Sean! I always enjoy your posts.

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  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I do agree that, ideally, blogging would be no substitute for science journalism. The problem is, in my opinion, the overall state of science journalism is so poor, I’m not sure if we’d be any worse off for losing it. In fact, I’ve recently witnessed the dismay of some scientist-bloggers over the butchery their own efforts with journalists were subjected to. While getting it from the horse’s mouth may at times be biased, and often well over my head, I can at least try to understand what I can, take a wide sampling to temper individual perspectives, and not worry that the level of discourse has been so dumbed-down as to be simply inaccurate, and hence less valuable than complete ignorance.

    I’m not sure who or what is responsible for this. It’s easy to pick on the likes of newspapers, or the journalists, but I suspect they’re stuck giving the public what they want. Probably, if some-or-other paper made an effort to improve, it would be rewarded by their readership fleeing to other, less demanding sources.

    In sum, the enemy is us, and science journalism is probably helpless to change the market forces our collective demand generates. Meanwhile, some individuals at least now have somewhere else to go, and that’s a good thing.

  • http://www.whereisyvette.wordpress.com Yvette

    I was dipping my toe into the science journalism pool about a year ago, and ended up putting that on hold. The reason is because even incredibly experienced ones I talked to seemed to have problems getting and holding jobs, and any field where the guy who writes 50 cover articles for Time has issues is not one I need to be getting into! So for now, I’m going to start a Physics PhD instead.

    Interestingly enough though, I have an older sister off in biology grad school who is now intent on doing science journalism once she finishes. Runs in the family I suppose? :)

  • http://www.scienceofthetimes.com Eric R. Olson

    I think it’s great to have scientists interacting with the public directly via blogs. But one thing to keep in mind is that scientists are biased toward the success of their own work. It’s the job of the science journalist–as it is for all journalists–to play the role of independent watchdog.

    Playing that role isn’t as glamorous or exciting as spouting off about the latest cool gadget or discovery but it’s part of the larger role that journalism plays in a democracy. And in some ways it’s becoming more difficult as large institutions go direct via the web and cut out the “middleman,” as it were.

  • eddie

    I keep hearing variants on “blogging will never replace journalism”. Mainly from bloggers who have put the proverbial lampshade on their heads and are pointing; “they went thataway”.

    If what you mean by the phrase is that readers are reading blogs rather than papers then, dude, it already has for many and the numbers are stacking up. If you mean something other than that, then why? It’s been said that professional journalists have all these things like neutrality, a budget, etc but there’s little evidence that readers are getting any value for this.

    If journalists were doing all the things they claim to be good for, would we have had WMDs, anthrax, you name it where they pushed a lie for some corporate interest or other? Michael Brooks upthread was moaning about an imagined conflict of interest and Sean pointed out that there wasn’t one. Even if there were, what readers want is the writer to have a real interest in the subject, just as we have. Instead, what we get is what Low Math… said: Extremely low standards and butchery of the facts.

    For professional journalists, the only real defence of their behaviors seems to be that they are writing for a wider audience, that they are controlled by editors, proprietors and such. The fact that the interests of bloggers and their readers (all four of them) are aligned is a good thing. The fact that bloggers are not beholden to others is a good thing. The fact that bloggers know their subject as their day job is a good thing. Tell me again what journalists are good for.

  • http://newscientist.com Valerie Jamieson

    You know, I’d like to see people show science journalists some love for a change. We root out stories you might never otherwise hear of, report the facts, and tell great stories about science and scientists. We bring science to a wide audience, helped along the way by people digging and recommending articles to others. And there are really skilled journalists out there who make all that look very easy. Trust me, it isn’t. Newspaper and magazine business models rely largely on advertising – so do websites like this one. Advertising revenues are dropping and there’s a real danger that there won’t be any science in newspapers or science magazines in the future. How do you fancy a world where you can only get your fix of science from the blogosphere? I, for one, wouldn’t. While there are great science blogs out there that are updated regularly and provide wonderful insight into science, there’s a lot of rubbish out there too.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    It’s almost creepy how these things come up.

    I went to Nude Sensationalist to find a typical bad article, and look what they’ve got:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20127011.300-media-distortion-damages-both-science-and-journalism.html

    Now, I’m not blaming all science journalists by any means, and I like a few very, very much. But, again, the overall state of the field strikes me as rather pathetic. Not only do I not worry about losing it all that much, I don’t worry about losing most newspapers either. Evolution, baby. I say, start a science journalism co-op or something, go indie. Charge a subscription fee, and see where it gets you. I guarantee if it’s good I’ll pay up and read.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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