A couple of nights ago, I discovered a blog by Canadian science journalist Colin Schultz, who is doing a series of interviews with eminent science journalists including Carl Zimmer, Nicola Jones, David Dobbs and Jay Ingram. They’re great reads and I especially liked the stark differences in the answers from Nicola Jones and Carl Zimmer, particularly about the sorts of stories they like to tell.
Jones says, “The really fulfilling stories are the ones that come, I think, spinning out of real world events.” She is interested in how science “relates to policy developments” or “to things that are going on in the real world.” Carl, on the other hand, says, “I think a lot of science writers actually try to search a little too hard for that ‘news you can use’ when it comes to science. A lot of science is just interesting in and of itself. And it just sort of gives you a richer understanding of the world, and there really isn’t any need to make wild claims about a cure for cancer right around the corner”
My approach is far more aligned to Carl’s. I often tell stories on this blog with absolutely no practical relevance. Their goal is to instil a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, which is what the best science communicators have done for me. As I said in my own ‘twitterview‘ with Colin (see below), we shouldn’t “underestimate the power of ‘this is cool’ stories.”In the short term, current affairs and political decisions provide nice, obvious hooks with which to explain science to a mass audience. But in the long-term, I suspect that stories that evoke a sense of awe and excitement are what truly get people to regularly engage with science, its methods and its processes.
None of this is intended to suggest that “this-is-cool” stories are somehow superior to those explaining the interaction between science, policy and society, or what David Dobbs calls the “smells funny” stories. They are simply the stories that I prefer to tell. Individual journalists can specialise in one or more of these areas but across the science writing population, we ultimately need a mix of approaches.
This post is written by a special guest – Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at Science Online 2010. I was delighted when Ivan accepted my invitation to follow up a recent Twitter exchange with a guest-post, and shocked that he even turned down my generous honorarium of some magic beans. Here, he expounds on the tricky issues of journalistic balance and how journalists can choose their sources to avoid “he-said-she-said” journalism. Over to him:
The other day, a tweet by Maggie Koerth-Baker, a freelance science journalist in Minneapolis, caught my eye. In it, she bemoaned the fact that editors and producers often encourage their reporters to go find an “opposing viewpoint” to make a story balanced. She said her journalism school professors — she graduated in 2004 — always told her the same thing.
That troubled me.
I’ve been teaching medical journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Programsince 2002, and I taught a similar course at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism for three years. As I told Maggie and the othershaving the conversation on Twitter, I never tell my students to get “opposing viewpoint” but to get outside perspective — one that may agree with the study or the main idea being put forward by a source.
It’s easy to see why opposing viewpoints often rule the day. People like tension, and good journalists like skeptics. People who feel strongly about something are often media-savvy. They know how to give soundbites. They’re often telegenic — think Jenny McCarthy.
But I don’t have to tell you how this can lead to false balance. Others have written convincingly on this before, notably my NYU colleague Jay Rosen. In science and health reporting, you can end up with this.
Clearly, if the only sources you can find to “oppose” a study’s findings are from a scientific fringe, the best “opposing” viewpoint may be one that agrees!
Next week, I’ll be chairing a session at the Science Online 2010 conference called Rebooting science journalism in the age of the web. I’ll be shooting the breeze with Carl Zimmer, John Timmer and David Dobbs about the transition of journalism from sheets of plant pulp to wires and wi-fi. The title of the talk had been set before the panel was assembled but, being biologists at heart, we’re going to shift the metaphor from a technological one to an evolutionary one.
As a species, science journalists (in all their varied forms and behaviours) have found themselves thrust into a new digital ecosystem that presents fresh challenges to their survival. Some individuals will have adaptive traits that allow them to thrive in this brave, new world, while others are riddled with maladaptive qualities and face extinction. In this post (and hopefully, during the session), we’ll consider what the new ecosystem looks like, what opportunities and threats it presents, and how journalists can adapt to survive in it. Let’s start with opportunities (I’m bucking the trend by starting a blog post about science journalism on a positive note).
At Science Online 2010, due to begin in a few weeks, I will be chairing a panel of veteran bloggers/journalists in a discussion on rebooting science journalism in the age of the web. Joining me will be Carl Zimmer, John Timmer and David Dobbs. We’ll be chatting about how science journalism and science journalists will survive in the new media ecosystem, which traits are adaptive in this environment, and which are not. Dave’s already got the ball rolling with some thought-provoking posts on the topic and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be doing the same. This first post will go back to basics and try to understand who exactly these pesky science journalists are in the first place…
Science journalists: depending on who you ask, they are either the unsung heroes of science outreach, or the villains of the piece with blood on their hands. Much of this debate hinges on qualifying exactly who counts as a science journalist in the first place. This is a semantic argument but an important one – where you draw the line affects how you perceive the successes and the failures of those on either side of it.
In response to criticisms, I have noted many people in the field diverting responsibility to others. The distilled version of this defence is that science journalism is work that’s done by people who cover science beats for major news organisations. This excludes, for example, reporting about health (often regarded and billed as a separate speciality) or reporting that deals with scientific issues but is penned by interloping journalists from different beats.
Take the MMR debacle, which has become known as an exemplar of terrible science journalism. At the World Conference of Science Journalists, David Derbyshire from the Daily Mail said that the farrago was mainly the fault of political journalists who latched onto the story. Similarly, Alok Jha from the Guardian ascribes the poorest writing about MMR to lifestyle journalists. According to this viewpoint, science journalism is the oeuvre of those who are specifically assigned to write about science. But this seems like a slightly odd and antiquated definition, for several reasons:
All this being said, I do understand why many science journalists demarcate their field in this way. It must be very galling for the high-quality ones (and there are plenty) to receive criticism intended for others who are lowering the average. It’s the same vitriol I feel when people describe bloggers as little more than tantrum-throwers given airtime.
If the mainstream media is guilty of overly narrowing the definition of a science journalist, then those outside it are perhaps equally guilty of being too taxonomically lax. Take the recent case of Matt Wedel, a palaeontologist who was mercilessly misquoted by documentary-makers for the programme Clash of the Dinosaurs. As correctly pointed out in one of the comments on Brian’s blog, TV production crews are distinct from journalists. Not everyone who writes or broadcasts about science inevitably becomes a science journalist.
But the answer is not to retreat behind arbitrary boundaries based on job title. The thing that people seem to have forgotten is that journalism is a set of ideals and methods rather than a loose collection of job descriptions.
Fiona Fox of the UK’s Science Media Centre has described it as “a common set of standards including selection, investigation, truth-telling, independence, editing, accuracy, balance, scrutiny, objectivity and so on.” The Elements of Journalism defines a similar list of truth-telling, loyalty to citizens, verification, independence, acting as a watchdog and providing a forum for criticism. It speaks of news as interesting, relevant, proportional and comprehensive.
Indeed, there is plenty of excellent science reporting out there, but equally a large amount that fulfils very few of these values. There is rampant churnalism, a dearth of fact-checking, misguided attempts at balance at the cost of accuracy. On the other hand, there is plenty of work from non-traditional sources that does espouse these values, including the writings of many freelance science writers and working scientists (and many of the so-called elements of journalism are elements of good scientific practice too).
If you play out this taxonomic game, you quickly see that many people who ostensibly work in science journalism produce work that is nothing of the sort. Likewise, amateurs who wouldn’t classify themselves as science journalists, actually ought to count.
The world of science journalism is becoming wider and arguably more prolific. In the online era, when the tools of production are cheap and available to all, the lines separating journalists from other communicators is getting increasingly blurry. I have argued before that the distinction between science bloggers and science journalists is an unhelpful one and I stand by that.
To me, science journalism will be increasingly defined by its values rather than by its practitioners. The journalistic value of a writer or a piece of writing will be determined on a more individual basis rather than because of their job title or where they work.
As Jay Rosen points out, “Journalism is not the media… We got into the habit of calling journalism the “news media,” and then just “the media.” Journalism and the system that carries it became equated.”
News journalism relies on a tried-and-tested model of inverted storytelling. Contrary to the introduction-middle-end style of writing that pervades school essays and scientific papers, most news stories shove all the key facts into the first paragraphs, leaving the rest of the prose to present background, details and other paraphernalia in descending order of importance. The idea behind this inverted pyramid is that a story can be shortened by whatever degree without losing what are presumed to be the key facts.
But recently, several writers have argued that this model is outdated and needs to give way to a new system where context is king, Jason Fry argues that this “upside-down storytelling” is broken and while his piece primarily deals with sports reporting, his arguments equally apply to other areas.
“Arrive at the latest newspaper story about, say, the health-care debate and you’ll be told what’s new at the top, then given various snippets of background that you’re supposed to use to orient yourself. Which is serviceable if you’ve been following the story (though in that case you’ll know the background and stop reading), but if you’re new you’ll be utterly lost.”
Fry cites an excellent article by Matt Thompson at Nieman Reports, which compares the reading of modern news to “requiring a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns, accumulating knowledge”. Both writers make excellent points that are especially problematic for bigger stories, where rolling coverage drives audiences deeper into the latest minutiae and further away from the context needed to make sense of it all. The problem isn’t limited to old media – blogs often send readers on interminable trails of links and archived posts to the start of a debate or topic.
These issues are highly relevant to science journalism. Here, context is vital for placing new findings against the body of research that inspires, supports or contradicts it. It shows you the giant shoulders that each new discovery stands upon.
Take the widely reported news about FOXP2, the so-called “language gene” last week. The human version of FOXP2 encodes a protein that’s just two amino acids away from its chimp counterpart. FOXP2 is an executive gene that controls the activity of many others; a new study in Nature showed that the two changes that separate the human and chimp proteins give FOXP2 control over a different network of minions. This could have been an important step in the evolution of human speech.
Cue the headlines saying that the human speech gene had been found and that one gene prevents chimps from talking. One site even claimed that one gene tweak could make chimps talk. But human speech is a complicated business, involving radical changes to both our brains and our anatomy. FOXP2 may have been an important driver of these changes but the odds of there being a single language gene are about as high as there being a gene for penning fatuous headlines or writing in an inverted-pyramid style. And experiments in mice, birds and even bats have suggested that if it’s a gene for anything, it’s for learning coordinated movements.
When I saw the press copy of the paper, I knew that it was going to be big and that I wanted to cover it. But I wanted to try something different. Last year, I wrote a long feature for New Scientist about the FOXP2 story, from the gene’s discovery to the erosion of its “language gene” moniker. Instead of covering the paper fresh, I decided to re-edit the feature, incorporating the new discoveries (and others that had come out in the last year) into the narrative I’d already crafted. The result is a living story, an up-to-date version of the FOXP2 tale, kitted out in this season’s colours. The new stuff is there, but you hopefully get the nuances that are necessary to appreciate their significance. I’m pleased with the result and I want to do more.
I’ve touched on the idea of living stories in my write-ups of the World Conference of Science Journalists. There Krishna Bharat, founder of Google News, cited the Wikipedia page on swine flu as an example of a “timeless resource”, constantly updated as statistics changed and discoveries were revealed. The page provided a valuable insight into a rapidly developing topic without simply setting new statistics adrift in a barren and featureless sea.
Fry and Thompson also cite Wikipedia as an example of how it should be done, and they quote an interview with co-founder Jimmy Wales, who notes that the online encyclopaedia is now a major attraction for news-hungry readers. On Wikipedia, the latest goings-on are added, but they’re never allowed to ride shotgun at the expense of context. Clearly, something about the model is working, and “topic pages” are an emerging trend in the world of online news. The New York Times has introduced them. New Scientist has them. The Associated Press are following suit.
That’s not to say that news pieces as we know them are journalistic dinosaurs. After all, people go to Wikipedia for summaries of newsworthy topics after finding out about them through more traditional channels. I doubt that many use the site as their primary news source. At a population level, a mix of approaches seems best – reporting of news alongside living resources that place them within a broader landscape.
This is especially needed when it comes to health-related stories, where new studies about Risk X and Disease Y must be weighed up against others of their ilk. Currently, this is a rarity – the focus on new news paints a picture of rapidly seesawing consensus, when the reality is more like a feather causing a weighted scale to teeter.
On an individual level, writers can also do more within the bounds of a single story, especially in the different environment offered by online media. Some selection pressures are the same – having important keywords in opening paragraphs pleases search engines and editorial conventions alike. But others are more relaxed – the inverted pyramid style may have been essential in a print environment where limited column space could hack a long piece to mere paragraphs but such unnecessary constrictions are irrelevant online. Here, pieces can find room to breathe, and Z-list elements like details and background can find their rightful place at a story’s heart.
This is the approach that I try for in this blog, making news stories read more like mini-features. They’re less inverted-pyramid and more factual oblongs. I try to get the important stuff in early for the attention-deficit among us, but there’s no rush. I try to get a narrative in there without resorting to a straightforward school-essay structure. I hope it works, and I’m happy to take feedback. Meanwhile, I’m also considering adding topic pages for the pet issues that I find myself returning to time and again – horizontal gene transfer, embodied cognition, animal cooperation, transitional fossils… you know, the good stuff.
More on journalism:
The recent World Conference of Science Journalists included a wide variety of delegates, from professional hacks who cover science beats, to enthusiastic freelancers and bloggers like me, to people working in press offices and communications departments. And with such diversity, it was perhaps inevitable that people should discuss which of these gathered attendees actually counted as journalists? And what exactly does science journalism entail?
Certainly, the idea that journalism equated to talking or writing about science in any form was unpopular. In the opening plenary, Fiona Fox drew a fine line between science communication and journalism, the latter characterised foremost by a process of scrutiny. Gavin McFayden, Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, described most science news as “stenography” or a “cheerleading operation”. Over Twitter, Ivan Oransky explained to me, “For many, including me despite my MD background, you can only be a journalist because of conflicts”.
These comments espouse a division between science journalism as either a cheerleader or a watchdog, as noted in a recent Nature editorial. To many, journalists only succeed in blowing the trumpet of science, regurgitating content from published papers and press releases when they ought to be subjecting it to further scrutiny by questioning statistics and hype and exposing dodgy data, fraudulent practices, and conflicts of interest (some scientists would add that they don’t even do the first job particularly well).
Tied into this idea is the concept of “investigative journalism”, which I mentioned in an earlier post on the embargo process. That prompted other bloggers to ask what “investigative journalism” means in the context of science. Physioprof asked, “What kind of ‘investigative journalism’ could science journalists possibly engage in that relate to scientific discoveries per se, and not things like corruption or fraud?”
What we have here is a conflict about the very meaning about the word ‘journalism’ (and to a lesser extent, the phrase ‘investigative journalism’). It’s a semantic têtê-a-têtê fit for a place among even the nerdiest of scientific disputes. I am not even going to attempt to solve it here, but I do want to discuss the distinction between cheerleader and watchdog, between uncritically waving the banner for science and actually digging into it. And to me, there are two ways of watching the dog.
One of the highlights of the World Conference of Science Journalists was the final day’s heated debate about embargoes. For newcomers to the issue, journalists are often given press alerts about new papers before they are made publicly available, on the understanding that they aren’t reported before a certain deadline – the infamous embargo. This is why so much science news magically appears at simultaneously across news outlets. All the major journals (and many minor ones) do this with their papers, as increasingly do universities and other research institutions.
Vincent Kiernan (who has written a book deriding this practice) launched the first volley against embargoes by urging journalists to “just walk away” from them. He described them as a set of “velvet handcuffs”, leashing journalists to the goal of providing “infotainment or carry[ing] water for scientific establishments” instead of their giving people the information they need. To him, embargoes play on the “pack mentality” of journalists, luring them in with the fear of missing a story. Far from duplicating the same news as everyone else, society, he says, needs journalists to “follow news noses to find stories that establishment doesn’t want you to cover”. That is the key to flourishing in the era of new media – to provide unique content not via embargoed material.
Kiernan paved the road for an even more brutal (and much louder) onslaught by Richard Horton, editor of an obscure medical journal called the Lancet, who suffers from a 14-year embargo addiction. Looking like he was on the verge of spontaneously detonating (and noting with possible accuracy that he was about to get himself fired), he derided journalists for “equating reproduction with communication” and writing material filtered through the lens of biased press releases. “You’re sold your soul to publicity masquerading as science,” he shouted, adding that embargoes hand power over to journals, allowing them to dictate to institutions that have actually done the work.
To me, both these arguments are reflective of the massive conflation that pervaded the entire debate. The anti-embargo side consistently equated embargoes (which, let’s face it, are just time constraints) with the press releases they are actually constraining. Geoff Watts of BBC Radio also noted this conflation. A further logical leap was made in assuming that the very existence of press releases (and thus embargoes) necessarily leads to shoddy churnalism, and I’d like to think that this blog, at the very least, is an exception to that model.
Similarly, the concept that ridding science reporters of embargoes would foment more investigative journalism is surely too simplistic. As Nick Davies discussed in his much earlier session, PR leads to poor journalism by exploiting structural problems that are already present – lack of reporters, tight deadlines and increasing workloads which lead to less time per story.
These overarching factors, much more so than any inherent laziness, are the reasons that even enterprising journalists regurgitate press releases. Stripping away embargoes, or even those releases, isn’t going to magically solve the underlying lack of time. Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre rightly picked Kiernan up for this failure to make the case that embargoes have precipitated a loss of investigative reporting. When pushed, he conceded that the “real problem is not the embargo”, it’s the competitive system we work in and time-specific nature of editorial demands.
What of the reverse question – will the loss of embargoes lead to a deluge of scoops? Watts thinks not, saying that scoops are relatively uncommon in science journalism. When they exist and are sufficiently big, they aren’t drowned out by other embargoed material. Indeed, Mark Henderson, Science Editor at the Times, noted that the embargo is a simple, benign “bilateral agreement about information provision that is often fetishised as a big rule”. It’s often not appreciated that if information is sourced through another route (investigative ones, say, rather than press alerts), then embargoes don’t apply and journalists are at liberty to report at their convenience (as Paul Sutherland did with his Mars scoop).
In light of this, Henderson noted that the much bigger problem is the Inglefinger rule, the draconian policy where a journal will only consider publishing research if it has not been submitted elsewhere or already reported. The rule scares researchers away from talking about their work for fear of the journal’s retribution. But critically, at that point in the proceedings, the news has not been embargoed and no press release has been written.
Watts summed it up by dismissing the embargo issue as a “minor technicality in larger debate about media”. He eloquently compared the lot of the journalist to that of a fighter pilot – parachutes aren’t desirable because it’s better that the plane doesn’t crash at all but until that risk is non-existent, you’d be daft to disregard this necessary safety measure. Likewise, embargoes provide both journalists and science as a whole with benefits that it would be remiss to ignore.
For a start, they “bring a measure of order to chaotic flow of events”. Predictability allows you to allocate time to more thorough investigation, contacting people, digging into background and so on. I wholeheartedly agree. I find it a tremendous help to be able to plan what I want to write about in a given week, to select the most interesting of forthcoming papers and to take time over assessing the quality of potential fodder. And I do this in my spare time; it’s even more pertinent for people working on busy news desks and particularly for broadcasters who need to deploy film crews.
But first and foremost, the main benefit of embargoes is that they lead to more overall science coverage. While they may certainly skew the balance away from smaller journals, they also skew the balance towards smaller stories. Watts alluded to this, positing a hypothetical embargo-free world where important stories will get covered anyway, but those that fail to shatter earth (such as this piece on the learning ability of sticklebacks) simply won’t get in. If these interesting but less practically important works do somehow fight off competition for column space in one paper, it is unlikely that opposition outlets will pick them up. And that will be a massive shame for science and the general public alike.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the winning argument. I am a scientist first and a journalist second and my concern is far less for the prevalence of investigative journalism than it is for giving the public more and more opportunities to hear about science. It is those opportunities that are in danger of becoming endangered should embargoes vanish.
You could, of course, argue that this greater quantity of science coverage is a shallow victory when so much is regurgitated or inaccurate. But, as I’ve noted earlier, this is not the fault of the embargo – it’s a fault of journalistic practices fuelled by other structural problems. For many journalists, embargoes actually give you the time to not regurgitate and to craft material more carefully. This is especially true for the biggest stories (ironically those would probably get covered without an embargo, and indeed, whose embargoes are most commonly broken) that need good analysis.
More on science journalism
Nick Davies is one of the most interesting figures in UK journalism, not least because of the publication of his excellent book Flat Earth News. On his website, he describes the book as “[taking] the lid off newspapers and broadcasters, exposing the mechanics of falsehood, distortion and propaganda; naming names and telling the stories behind stories.”
In a superb session, Davies (ably interviewed by Jeremy Webb of New Scientist) set out his thesis about the broken state of science journalism, littered with pithy turns of phrase and good-natured storytelling.
Davies’s key assertion is that journalism is about telling the truth. To him, telling the truth is a “necessary but not sufficient” part of the job. And if the primary function of a journalist is truth-telling, the primary activity should be checking and gathering evidence. Be it through reviewing literature, conducting interviews or checking sources, the final goal is the same – to “construct a story entirely out of statements of fact.”
The notion of journalism as truth-telling may be met with surprise and denial by many of you, and Davies would probably sympathise. He has been a journalist for over 30 years and in his mind, things have changed. “News media should be reliable sources of truth”, he says, “but they are riddled with stories that appear to be true but actually aren’t upon checking.” The situation is a lot like the widespread belief that the Earth was flat – a concept that was taken as fact until some serious checking was done. Hence, the name of the book.
The key question then becomes why we produce stories with “falsehood, distortion and propaganda”? He says, “There are certainly a lot of lazy hacks out there – some of them are drunk as well. But that’s a relatively small factor.” To Davies, it’s a “structural problem”. Modern journalism has been saddled with a structure that is likely to produce inaccurate stories. As he so eloquently put it, “Newsrooms are taken over by corporations that have injected logic of commercialism and rejected the logic of journalism.”
In which, having largely stayed out of it, I wade into the ongoing rivalry between bloggers and more mainstream forms of science writing…
The latest round in this seemingly endless debate was a review by New Scientist of Open Lab 2008, an anthology of the best science blogging from the last year. Others, including Brian Switek and SciCurious, have touched on the specific criticisms levied by the review, but I wanted to pick up on the more general issue it raised – namely the relative merits and pitfalls of science blogs compared to mainstream science writing.
I am increasingly uneasy with the entire nature of the journalists vs. bloggers “debate” and not least because I vaguely straddle both worlds. Pitching the sides against each other, as others have argued, is too contrived and it brings out the unfortunate tendency of everyone concerned to rely on mass generalities. We launch our attacks on straw-man caricatures of each other, with bloggers being portrayed as scatter-brained loudmouths while journalists are labelled as lazy or incompetent. In defence, both sides tend to highlight the best of their field as exemplars, while causally ignoring the worst elements. The effect is like trying to argue whether plays are better than novels by comparing Shakespeare to Dan Brown or Dickens to Lloyd Webber.
Take for example this quote by blogger John Hawks, cited by the New Scientist review: “If we’re going to compare the entire blogosphere with The New York Times, in terms of how much is worth reading for the average non-professional interested in science, the blogosphere is worse by an order of magnitude.” It’s a false and uninformative comparison, in that it pitches the entire blogosphere against the NYT, one of the top echelons of newspaper journalism. The blogosphere also has a variety of different audiences from the “general public” to more specialist readers.
Often, shared weaknesses are portrayed as being singular to one or the other. Both sides have dark corners. For every Carl Zimmer or Mark Henderson, there are plenty of hacks churning out one inaccuracy after another, and for every Laelaps, Neurotopia or Mind Hacks, there are plenty of blogs that lack interesting content, decent writing skills or both.
Both channels attract readers who want to reinforce rather than challenge their views – it’s not a problem unique to blogs. As a middle-class liberal, I am unlikely to be abandoning the Guardian for the Daily Mail or the News of the World any time soon. Good scientists like controls – where is the appropriate one here? It’s no shock that people gravitate towards media that fits with their own biases and likes, but that’s true online and offline.
Both sides practice churnalism from time to time. Journalists are often accused of cutting and pasting press releases, but many bloggers do the same by highlighting posts with a copied paragraph and not much besides a link (and often the paragraph comes from a mainstream story, a press release or an aggregator like ScienceDaily).
To me, both blogging and traditional science writing have much to offer anyone interested in science communication and I would personally recommend people to have a shot at both. In many cases, their strengths complement each other and in ways that are often ignored amidst the mutual entrenched sniping.
For instance, writers from both channels receive tremendously useful forms of feedback that are largely denied to the other. Bloggers get theirs from reader comments and retorts from other bloggers. Critiques can be brutal and unrestrained, but they can help you to write more accurately, and pick topics more selectively. Feedback on my blog has taught me to be wary about certain kinds of studies (evolutionary psychology and overuse of fMRI as examples). It teaches you about balance between finding a good story and critiquing the science behind it. Hopefully, it means that I will end up selecting fewer duds to cover. You get a better sense of the detail that your audience requires. If you paint your story too broad a brushstroke, people notice and they’re keen to point out missing details and flaws in reasoning. This level of bespoke, on-the-fly feedback is invaluable.
In more traditional science writing, the feedback comes from editors and focuses more on delivery rather than content. Editors can mangle a piece but at their best, they can help budding writers to hone their skills, draw out important narrative threads in their work, correct clumsy phrases, and mould a lumpy, rambling article into a svelte, streamlined one. It’s a service that I’ve only ever received through freelance mainstream work. While blogging gives me tips on content, mainstream writing helps to hone the delivery.
Writing for a mainstream outlet is a great crash course in tailoring your stuff for a general audience and it offers the challenges of working within a word count and to a tight deadline. Blogging, with its more freeform nature, allows people to be a bit more creative, to let their individual voices shine out a bit more. It would be a mistake to believe that writing a feature-length article for a publication like New Scientist, in a way that would be truly accessible to a non-specialist, is at all easy. Equally, it would be foolish of mainstream writers to write off more informal styles or the abilities of those who use them. Abbie Smith at ERV epitomises chatty LOLspeak writing but she also wrote this incredible piece on endogenous retroviruses.
To summarise, I believe we need to accept the mutual limitations of both formats and to recognise the ways in which their strengths can work together. Dabbling in both blogging and mainstream writing allows you to soak up their strengths and gives you firsthand experience of their weaknesses. It’s not surprising to me to find that a lot of the best writing happens at the intersection (no pun intended) of the two disciplines, from the hands of writers who have experience of both worlds.
I personally hope that each of my experiences in blogging, mainstream writing, and media work (limited though they are) is making me better at the others. My blog gives me continual practice at describing complex science with precision and more critical savvy, which I can hopefully bring to freelance pieces for traditional media in an attempt to avoid many of the mistakes that I myself cringe at. My freelance work teaches me the power of brevity, fluidity of language and tight narratives, which I hope I can bring to my blogging. Interviewing people for said piece tells me about how people react to being questioned and what makes a good response – knowledge that I can use when I do interviews myself. At Cancer Research UK, I interact with journalists on a regular basis to give interviews, talk about new research and provide a wider context for the most recent findings. That helps me to remember what journalism actually entails and how to work within the system to get my message across.
Shun any one of these experiences and you risk becoming unaware of the full breadth of science communication. I don’t actually think that’s a problem, unless you claim that any of them are pointless or inferior, in which case, you are unaware of the full breadth of science communication. My two cents…
The mainstream media are just queuing up to fail in their reporting of the propranolol story from a couple of days ago. To reiterate:
Propranolol is commonly used to treat high blood pressure and prevent migraines in children. But Merel Kindt and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam have found that it can do much more. By giving it to people before they recalled a scary memory about a spider, they could erase the fearful response it triggered.
The critical thing about the study is that the entire memory hadn’t been erased in a typical sci-fi way. Kindt had trained the volunteers to be fearful of spidery images by pairing them with electric shocks. Even after they’d been given propranolol, they still expected to receive a shock when they saw a picture of a spider – they just weren’t afraid of the prospect. The drug hadn’t so much erased their memories, as dulled their emotional sting. It’s more like removing all the formatting from a Word document than deleting the entire file.
The drug is not a “memory-wiping pill” (Guardian). It cannot “erase bad/painful memories” (Sun/ Fox News/ Metro/ Daily Mail) and it won’t give you a “spotless mind” (Scotsman). Perhaps it’s unsurprising given that massive wire agencies said similar things. The Press Association led with claims that the drug can “erase fearful memories“. Reuters at least said more cautiously that it was a “step towards erasing bad memories“.
To quote the person who actually did the research (and thanks Merel for chiming in on the earlier post):
“There was no memory erasure, just elimination of the fearful response.”
The problem with all of this, of course, is that people have straw-manned the research and are falling over themselves to publish trite editorials that (a) are irrelevant to the actual study and (b) serve to stoke public outrage over an ethical dilemma of their own concoction.
There are exceptions. The Boston Globe got it right and has a brilliant bit at the end that lays out in four simple sentences the bottom line, cautions, what’s next, and where the research was published. It has however accompanied the article with an incongruous photo of a koala, presumably some sort of mix-up with the Australian bushfire story.
The mental health charity MIND released a long and well-considered statement, which showed that they had actually read the paper and understood the science. The charity’s CEO, Paul Farmer, said:
“This is fascinating research that could transform the treatment for phobias and post traumatic stress disorder. Around 10 million people in the UK have a phobia and about 3.5% of the population will be affected by post traumatic stress disorder at some point yet our understanding of how to treat these conditions is still limited. While we welcome any advancement in this field we should also exercise caution before heralding this as a miracle cure.
“Eradicating emotional responses is clearly an area we would need to be very careful about. It could affect people’s ability to respond to dangerous situations in the future and could even take away people’s positive memories. We would not want to see an ‘accelerated Alzheimer’s’ approach.
“We still have limited research on how to treat complex mental health problems, with the focus often on pharmacological solutions. Drugs are a somewhat sledgehammer approach and can have unintended consequences. We know from other psychiatric drugs, for example antipsychotics and antidepressants, that individuals react in hugely varied ways to treatments and are often vulnerable to unpleasant side effects.
“We would need to see much more research into the risks and benefits into this treatment before it becomes a reality.”
All of that was culled by the BBC into the following:
But British experts questioned the ethics of tampering with the mind.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said he was concerned about the “fundamentally pharmacological” approach to people with problems such as phobias and anxiety.
He said the procedure might also alter good memories and warned against an “accelerated Alzheimer’s” approach.
Do you think it carries the same meaning or sense?