Science/Journalism

By Neuroskeptic | March 13, 2011 10:23 am

I was at a discussion the other day about science and the media. Some scientists and some journalists were there. As a scientist, talking to other researchers was a bit of an echo chamber – everyone had very similar comments, mostly negative, about the media coverage of science.

But hearing from journalists was interesting and I’ve put together this handy guide to the differences between science and journalism as professions:


There seem to be three main sticking points. Note that this is mainly relevant to news journalism – “Scientists today announced…”; feature writing largely avoids these issues. I think it also applies to the British media somewhat more than elsewhere.

Time: Compared to science, journalists work at a supersonic speed. Whereas a scientific journal can claim “rapid publication” if it only takes two months from submission to print, a news journalist is expected to write up a story in hours. News must be new, and if one of their rivals scoops them, they lose the story. So even with the best will in the world, journalists are never going to be able to give stories what, to a scientist, would be “sufficient consideration” i.e. a couple of days thought at least.

Expertise: The average scientist knows an awful lot about their sub-sub-speciality of a particular branch of science. By contrast most ‘science journalists’ are just that – they cover science, all of it. A few are lucky enough to have a “speciality”, like environmental issues or physics, but this is is still vast by scientific standards. They’re not stupid, and with a few days of study, I’m sure it would be possible for them to grasp the science behind every story they cover. However, they just don’t have that time.

Goal: For a scientist, an interesting article is one which adds to their own understanding. Given that modern scientists are world experts in a very narrow field (see above), this means they are mostly interested in stuff which only they and maybe 20 or 30 other people will appreciate. To a journalist writing for an audience of millions, that’s by definition irrelevant. If this means they have to draw tenuous conclusions between the science and the hot topics that sell stories – cancer, children, cute animals, and controversies – they’ll just have to do that.

In summary, journalists and scientists have completely different agendas. So “good science journalism”, in the sense of stuff that scientists and journalists will be equally happy with, is a contradiction in terms. Except maybe in the rare cases of sudden breakthroughs that genuinely involve hot topics, like say the discovery of a cute new species. This is not the fault of individual journalists; it’s a structural problem.

*

So my feeling is that reporting science as news is inherently flawed from a scientific perspective. The core of the problem is time. Even a world-expert scientist would struggle to make a serious evaluation of some new science in a few hours. A journalist who has to write about everything from swine flu to the Large Hadron Collider, all in the same day, has no chance. This is not the fault of individual journalists; it’s a structural problem.

But the problem is not limited to science journalism. Newspaper journalism is in crisis as we all know. Sales and profits are falling so jobs are cut and the few remaining people have to shoulder the same workload. Cheap junior reporters and unpaid interns increasingly replace expensive veterans. Under enormous time pressures, journalists have no choice but to rely heavily on press releases. This can’t go for ever – something has to give.

So what’s the solution? This is going to make me sound like a right arse but I think the answer is… blogging. Not as a replacement for science journalism, but as an complement to it. A science blogger can act as an intermediary between raw science and journalists.

Bloggers generally write about what they know, bringing specialist expertise. Each individual blog has a fairly narrow specialist focus, but the other side of that coin is that they dig deeper than journalists can. Maybe it takes them a couple of days – but the stories they uncover are ones that inherently can’t be generated any quicker. Here’s a great example. Science blogs are a kind of second source of news stories on top of the primary literature.

And they do this for free, which is lucky because no-one would pay us for it. Journalists obviously can’t just copy and paste from blogs, but I think almost any blogger would be only too glad for their work to be borrowed for a mainstream media piece so long as it contained a link back to the original (bloggers love to hate the mainstream media but nothing makes us happier than getting mainstream media coverage, seriously).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, media, science
  • Anonymous

    Might be more than a little naive to believe in such a remote possibility, but science journalists should really reconsider their need for speed. It's not like it matters whether I learn about a new adorable furry species the day it's discovered or a week later. Same goes for the discovery of a genetic link and so on.

    This in contrast to news journalism where speedy information might be crucial to the public understanding and reaction to an issue. If terrorists attacked the subway I take to work, I don't want to wait a week to read about it.

  • Anonymous

    I think you may have hit on part of the problem, rather than the solution. The growth of the blogosphere, if anything, has accentuated the news industry's problems. And I don't see how offering free science journalism is going to provide the ever diminishing population of journalists with better job prospects. Certainly, for individuals such as yourself who have a day job, blogging is a viable alternative to publishing pieces in lay magazines and newspapers. But for a reporter, this is not currently a viable market place.

    So while I can certainly agree that the constraints of modern journalism play a large role in why scientists dislike the rather shoddy science reporting that we see in the media, I don't think there really is any kind of solution. As long as the general public continues to want short and simple tidbits about topics in science, that's all they're going to get.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11937264509253612864 pj1280

    As a clinician, scientist, and blogger, I find your conclusions spot-on.

    I just finished writing an invited review article for a major scientific journal, so I'm dealing with all the arcane red tape of the conventional publication process (optimizing figures for publication, editing my reference list, formatting my PDF & figure submissions the right way, etc), and it will still be another 3-4 months before the article is published.

    In contrast, with my blog I can get an idea, write an article, and have it published in 3-4 hours. And it will probably reach more readers in the first week than my article will ever.

    Obviously, peer review is not possible with blogs in their current format, but it is undoubtedly a more efficient and effective way to communicate results. PLOS is a big step in this direction. Conventional journals will be obsolete by the end of this decade.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous 12:04 – I think a lot of the problems would be solved if science journalists agreed amongst themselves not to write about a study for, say, 3 days after it's published.

    As it is they usually get told about it before it's published by way of an embargoed press release so they can have an article ready for the minute it appears. Which makes it hard to get informed comments from scientists since most of them haven't read it.

    The problem is of course that this system wouldn't work since anyone could break the agreement and scoop everyone else by reporting on things as soon as possible, as they currently do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06832177812057826894 pj

    Maybe the solution is for journalists to be allowed to show embargoed papers to specialists during the embargo period (which should be longer than 24hrs) to get some expert opinion from someone who has time to digest the paper.

    Currently embargoes do seem to be kept to.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06807912674127645263 Rosie Redfield

    But if the media lets the suspect the article age for three days, researchers like me probably won't realize that the article deserves our scrutiny. Neither of the papers I've recently critiqued would have come to my attention without the media fuss.

  • http://eclecticradical@blogspot.com Chris Richards

    In the United States the problem is aggravated by the nature of the news media. It's probably somewhat like this elsewhere as well, but I don't have knowledge of the Canadian or Mexican media as readily at my fingertips.

    Science journalism is not considered “general interest” by most of the markets for whom a reporter with an 18 hour deadline is working. So a lot of important and accurate news is either not carried at all or buried deep in the product. Most of what makes it to the sections of the paper that publishers believe the general public reads is therefore so tremendously sensational that any moron would stop and read it despite their lack of interest in genetics, neurology, or biology.

    That means the best science news is entirely unavailable in mainstream newspapers or magazines. One has to pick up a science magazine to find it and, when one does, one is more likely to find a specialized “biology writer”, “genetics writer”, or “neurology writer.” Even that guy is not being to be as highly specialized as the people he writes about, but he has more freedom to write a story worth reading as opposed to one that will drop one's jaw and maybe not really tell you anything.

    That's because here the news is just another product for a corporation to package to entice the customer. Real science news is only packaged for people especially interested in science. People especially interested in science will not be well served by reading mainstream news about science.

    I'm not a science writer, but my professional area (boxing) faces the same problems so I understand the failures in the system. The biggest difference is that my professional area is really only important to those interested in it. Science news is important to everyone.

    I do NOT think the problem is so insoluable as Anonymous 20:12 suggests. All we have to do is stop treating information like a consumer good and start thinking of journalism as education. It's that simple.

    It's also that tremendously difficult.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08950455180922932493 Les

    Looks like you really delved into your microsoft office clip art collection there to prove your point… Sorry, provide the necessary evidence base.

  • http://emmiscafe.wordpress.com/ Emmy

    Great post. It's a real travesty – and I don't think time is the problem. It's articles that present discoveries in black-and-white absolutes. As though this discovery is somehow new and will never change. If they only emphasized that *this is only a snippet of the research, and it is ever evolving, read the studies*, the public would not be so misinformed.

    Case in point: civets (my area of specialty) became famous during the SARS epidemic. Because they spread the disease, caused havoc, scared everyone, etc. Except that civets did not cause the outbreak. In fact, the sick civets probably caught the disease from us. The vector turned out to be horseshoe bats – this was revealed in 2005. Thousands of slaughtered civets later, the media has still not corrected their error.

  • Anonymous

    I like the idea of turning science reporting over to bloggers entirely, actually. I think the net effect of traditional science journalism is just to mislead the public, and not by a narrow margin.

    I think your breakdown of the reasons why journalists get it wrong is good, but I would emphasize that if more science journalists had any kind of background in science, they would stand a better chance of writing stories that aren't complete garbage.

    I find myself re-reading this column from Ben Goldacre occasionally:

    http://www.badscience.net/2005/09/dont-dumb-me-down/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: Thanks. Yes that Ben Goldacre piece is very good; this post is heavily influenced by his ideas.

    I'm not sure that the problem is science journalists without science degrees though. A lot of them do have a scientific background; the problem is (and this is something that they themselves complain about I think) that they just don't have time to put it to good use.

    Also, even if they are a scientific expert, the editors of the newspaper outside the “science section” won't be, and if they don't want too much serious science in there, they'll cut it out.

  • http://twitter.com/weesimon Simon Stuart

    Very interesting post.

    The problem is: newspapers might be dying, but they're not dying very quickly. So no matter what the solution might be in an ideal world, we're going to be putting up with overworked hacks misrepresenting science for a long time yet.

    I was a journalist for 15 years; I then went back to university to study psychology. (I'm now lucky enough to be working for the NHS as an assistant psychologist … and, er, enjoying the rollercoaster ride that is applying for clinical training.) Last year I did a wee talk at the Engage! science festival in Glasgow about science and the media, the focus of which was the practical things researchers can do to engage with the press — without the end result being 400 words of nonsense topped by a meaningless pun. If anyone's interested, I can happily pass on the PowerPoint slides and some more info: tap me up via Twitter (weesimon) or drop me a line at weesimon at mac dot com.

    One of the key points was that bad science writing isn't just about individual science hacks: it's about the (admittedly dwindling) army of editors, subs and executives who also get their mitts on the copy. Trust me, stories can be rendered unrecognisable during this process — I know, because I was a part of it for a long time. I look back at some of the things I did with science stories — stupid headlines; desperate over-selling; bits I cut because I couldn't be bothered trying to understand them — and I am deeply ashamed. Good bloggers don't have this extra tier of tinkering, and that's a massive bonus.

    But that doesn't make the newspapers go away. “Know your enemy” is key.

  • Kelson

    Why can't people just only take reports from people who have been published in a peer review article? As a science student with a history of writers in my family I can understand the urge to publish first or be scooped but I feel that shouldn't be what is the main focus.

    the main focus should be getting reliable information. People could still try and get information from scientists who weren't published but it should be called something else, perhaps speculative science.

    I already realize this will probably never happen though as it would take too many powerful people to agree on something that they don't care about, but i think it'd be a pretty good solution.

    It feels like the media is treating science all wrong. Like they're all sprinting down to a wine cellar to uncork the newest barrel of wine and proclaiming to the world ” look here! I have found the best wine on earth!”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Kelson: Heh, your wine analogy is brilliant :)

  • Anonymous

    I once read a media report of scientific research into a type of shrimp with incredibly sophisticated colour perception. The journalist wrote that biologists didn't know WHY its vision was so sophisticated, but assumed it had something to do with food or mating.

    The comment amused me greatly, as it struck me as the biologist's tounge in cheek way of saying “we have no idea”. (Pretty much everything in sexual creatures is to do with food or mating) Nonetheless, the jornalist had diligently included the comment in the article, completely missing the joke.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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