Recently, I took part in a debate about improving science journalism, hosted at the Royal Institution. It was somewhat mixed, but at least, it allowed a variety of viewpoints to rise to the surface. The videos are now up. I’m at 31:00 in the first one, acting as a first-responder to the initial two speakers. I’m basically writing this on the spot, so it’s a bit rambling. For those who can’t be bothered to watch, basically my points are these:
- Science journalism suffers from big systemic problems that are not unique to science, and that won’t be solved by the typically suggested solutions of “send ‘em all on a stats course”.
- Time pressure is one of those problems, although the fact that many journalists working under the same pressures produce quality results suggests that it isn’t a critical factor.
- Many science journalists have come to accept a frankly unacceptable level of mediocrity in our own practice, including playing an odd blame game whenever mistakes are made, and tolerating stenography.
- Many of the errors in science journalism are made commonly and repeatedly, and we can find out what these are by paying attention to blog commentaries, Twitter, other social media, and more.
- Likewise, it would help if the people producing those critiques could frame them in a constructive and helpful way. As examples (not mentioned in the video), T. Ryan Gregory’s rants about junk DNA have been very helpful to me, and Jon Simons and Russ Poldrack are working on a guide to interpreting fMRI studies for journalists. Those resources allow those of us who want to do better to do better.
- Debates like the one in the video above are all well and good but the people in the room are (largely) the ones who are interested in quality science journalism. How do you reach the ones who are down the pub and don’t give a toss?