Just when I was wondering why there hasn’t been more mainstream coverage of the Jared Diamond/New Yorker lawsuit I blogged about at the beginning of this month, Columbia Journalism Review has an update. And in a recent article in Science, Diamond commented, saying “The complaint has no merit at all.”
Oddly, the Science article (which is unfortunately subscription-only) frames this whole situation as a conflict between different disciplines – mainly science and journalism.
Three worlds collide in this case. First is the world of science, specifically anthropology, which uses fieldwork and scientific methodology to study human cultures. Next is the craft of journalism, with its own set of ethics and practices aimed at reaching the general public. Finally, there is Papua New Guinea, a young nation still struggling to integrate many hundreds of tribes and clans into a modern state. For many years, Diamond, a physiologist by training, has worked in all three domains. (source)
As many people have pointed out, the New Yorker‘s heading “Annals of Anthropology” confused the issue: was Diamond’s article science or journalism?
Diamond says definitely journalism:
Both Diamond and [New Yorker Editor David] Remnick insist that such anthropological criticisms are irrelevant, because Diamond was working as a journalist for a popular magazine, not as an anthropologist writing a scholarly article. Although Diamond says he did not find out about the “Annals of Anthropology” line until shortly before publication and now regrets it, Remnick points out that the magazine routinely uses the “Annals” logo for stories not written by trained experts in the field at hand. Says Diamond, “Everyone knows that The New Yorker is not a scientific publication; it’s journalism.” That’s why he used the names Wemp gave him, he says. “In journalism, you do name names so that people can check out what you write.” Remnick agrees: “Journalistic practice differs from scientific practice in a number of ways,” he says, “and this seems to be one of them. Using real names is the default practice in journalism.”(source)
True – there are differences between science and journalism. We’ve hashed many of them out here in the science blogosphere already. But trotting out the tired old science/journalism dichotomy doesn’t explain away the problematic aspects of this case. Whether “Annals of Anthropology” was the title or not, Diamond is a professor of geography, and on the basis of his previous books, Guns Germs and Steel and Collapse, he is understood by the public to be a scientific authority who writes popular accounts of science. Any nonfiction piece he wrote was bound to be read in this light, and it’s disingenuous of him to suggest otherwise.
Anthropologists, unsurprisingly, want nothing to do with it:
“The New Yorker was wrong to imply that Diamond was an anthropologist or that what he wrote was anthropology,” says Dan Jorgensen of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, who has worked in PNG since the 1970s. Cultural anthropologist Alex Golub of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who says The New Yorker fact checker spoke with him for about 10 minutes while the story was being prepared, agrees. “This affects our discipline’s brand management.”
“This affects our discipline’s brand management” is a hilarious quote – but it’s also dead on. Because it’s not just the anthropologists who are concerned about their “brand”. Journalists are equally astonished that the story didn’t get properly fact checked or vetted. Alan Bisbort, a freelance journalist and author, has written an essay on the Diamond scandal at Stinkyjournalism.org (which broke the story).
Diamond is apparently not a journalist either. A story of this magnitude–one that accuses named people of committing capital crimes–demands multiple voices and carefully cited, verifiable sources. If you accuse someone (or an entire tribe) of murder and rape, you had better have a massive backlog of evidence on your side. To wit: By the article’s second paragraph, Diamond has accused Daniel Wemp of initiating and essentially overseeing a three-year revenge spree that “took…twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs.”
Such bold assertions not only require evidence, they mandate that the reporter get permission from those quoted to use their material in a published work or, at the very least, to make them aware that such information will be used in a published work. None of these basic cornerstones of journalism were put in place.
It’s interesting that the Science article is mostly concerned with Diamond’s story being misrepresented as anthropology or science in general, as opposed to calling it journalism – in which case perhaps the situation isn’t as bad, because journalism is, well, you know. The article implies that science’s “brand management” is Science‘s main priority. But I think that’s insufficient: bad science journalism inevitably reflects badly on both science and journalism. As Bisbort complains,
This only compounds my frustration over Diamond’s story because it hurts not just the venerable reputation of this magazine but also the entire profession of journalism, past, present and future. People predisposed to slamming the press now have more ammunition to do so. They may feel justified saying, “Hey, if The New Yorker doesn’t bother to fact-check its articles, then can you trust any print journalism at all?”
Exactly. Compare this situation – Diamond’s story in the New Yorker– with two other recent situations: researchers found to have falsified or overstated data published in peer-reviewed scientific journals (here’s one example), or Elsevier’s editors, who created no less than six fake peer-reviewed journals to advertise Merck products. See how intertwined the “brands” of science, science publishing, popular science and journalism really are? They’re all about integrity. Blaming journalism as a field for shortcomings in Diamond’s story gets us nowhere, because his story doesn’t just reflect badly on the New Yorker, or on Diamond; it reflects badly on publications that cover science, on experts who write about science, and on science in general. Even worse, this comes at a time when scientific experts need to be trusted by the public to make some pretty darn important assessments: climate change, infectious disease, energy – all topics with vast policy implications.
We can’t “manage” the “brand” of science by throwing journalism under a bus, because we need it: for better or worse, the mass media define the public face of science. And Jared Diamond, popular science writer, should know that better than most.
Columbia Journalism Review’s Craig Silverman quotes Science‘s reporter Michael Balter (which camp does Balter belong to anyway – “science” or “journalism”?) as saying Diamond and The New Yorker “thought they were being true to journalistic principles.” But Balter also goes on, ‘”The problem in this situation is that you’ve got a principal named source, and it’s basically a one-source story… If you can’t find the original source, then what do you do when you’ve got somebody named as being involved in criminal behavior?”‘(source)
How can that kind of reporting be “true to journalistic principles?” I am at a loss. And I really wish Diamond had a better answer for Science, or that Science‘s reporter Balter had pressed Diamond harder, because this whole “it wasn’t science” defense doesn’t do a thing for me.