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!
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
Sponges are among the most primitive of all animals. They are immobile, and live by filtering detritus from the water. They have no brains or, for that matter, any neurons, organs or even tissues. If you were looking for the evolutionary origins of animal intelligence, you couldn’t really pick a less likely subject to study.
With no neurons to speak of, these animals still have the genetic components of synapses, one of the most crucial parts of our nervous system. And their versions share startling similarities with those of humans.
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…