More from the peculiarly introspective world of science journalism

By Ed Yong | March 28, 2012 9:00 am

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?

Comments (2)

  1. Brian Too

    Might I suggest that science journalism is not unique in these problems? Particularly in regards to the time pressures and quality issues.

    Robert X. Cringely, a long-time technology commentator and author, frequently speaks to the quality issues that the blogosphere particularly, and the internet generally, seems to have made endemic.

    I just saw veteran journalist Linden Macintyre interviewed on the George Stromboulopolis (spelling of both is subject to amendment!) show. He commented that many new journalists are pressured to produce work on subjects the journalist simply knows too little about. All due to time pressures.

    Neither of these experienced journalists is a science specialist, or was speaking to science journalism specifically.

  2. I think this problem is widespread in popular science.

    TED talks are another example. Mind that in TED talks people usually listen to an expert on a topic s/he is specialised in, i.e. speaker education doesn’t play a role. And still mistakes like the following creep in: “Who do you want on your side of the meeting? Someone who is trained in getting to the truth, or some guy who is gonna drive a 400 lb electroencephalogram through the door” (Pamela Meyer). In fact, EEG systems are so light that even portable versions exist.

    Might the problem be the audience who is ready to accept nearly any bold claim?


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