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.