A Blog Around The Clock

Why good science journalists are rare?

Science coverage in New York Times is good because they can afford a whole stable of people, each expert in one field only. If Carl Zimmer was forced to cover, on a daily basis and without time to research, everything from astronomy and physics to archaeology and materials science, he would do a bad job, too. But he is given time to pick his own area – evolution – to study it for years, and to write whatever the heck he wants on any given week. So Carl is an expert on what he is writing.

A small paper with one science beat reporter will have to cover everything and that reporter will thus cover everything poorly. I covered this in the last segment of my radio interview last week – for science reporting, one needs a distributed net of experts, each weak on almost everything and each exceptionally strong on one thing only. And that is: science bloggers, the real experts in their fields. If it’s physics news, you go see what physics bloggers are saying. For evo-devo, you go to PZ, for circadian stuff, you come to me – if I have not blogged it yet, just ask me in the comments what I think of the latest study that is making the round of news.

If a newspaper/magazine and a large net of bloggers could strike a deal, that would benefit everyone. Seed did. Others should do the same.

Another note – every time we bash science journalists, someone comes up in the comments and says: Hey, how about Zimmer, or Olivia Judson, or Chris Mooney, or David Dobbs? They are good, aren’t they? Thus, science journalists are excellent!

My answer is, not just that they are free to write only about their area of expertise, but they also are bloggers (or, like Nicholas Wade, are open-minded and willing to learn from the criticisms by bloggers when he messes up something), and had plenty of time to learn how to behave online and to upgrade their ethics from journalistic so-called ethics to bloggers’ ethics. This is why they are good. As the journalism is moving from print to Web, it is important for journalists to start blogging in order to learn the ethics of the Web and the proper Web etiquette – how to behave online in a way that will bring them respect from the readers.

And the fact that only a handful of such names keep popping up over and over again is a proof that such good science journalists are rare.

Comments

  1. #1 JHB
    February 8, 2009

    Journalists are better for some things, bloggers are better for others, but they have different aims and work in different structures. That doesn’t make one necessarily better than the other. Yes, good science journalists are rare, but so are good bloggers.

    And this:

    And that is: science bloggers, the real experts in their fields. If it’s physics news, you go see what physics bloggers are saying. For evo-devo, you go to PZ, for circadian stuff, you come to me

    …borders on hubris. 4 years ago, you might have gone to PZ for evo-devo; now you go to laugh at creationists. And your approach to reporting circadian findings is usually to link to other sites without bothering to put the findings into your own words.

  2. #2 Anne
    February 8, 2009

    Yeah, I like your blog, but this post goes over like a lead weight for me, too. As a former print/online journalist just entering the blogosphere, I am excited — not because blogging is better, but because it’s fresh and new. And as a biology-trained science writer who has written a lot about astronomy and other fields, I’ve found my grasp of the scientific process has helped me understand and write about a variety of subjects, provided I have the interest and the humility to do a thorough job and ask questions. You’re still on my blogroll, but be careful: Much more of this snootiness and I’ll take you right off of there. That will be a big deal, because in my two weeks of blogging so far, I’ve accrued a formidable, dedicated readership of about 20 people.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    February 8, 2009

    I guess I was laughing so hard at the creationists that I hallucinated seeing evo-devo at Pharyngula.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    February 8, 2009

    More discussion of this post is here

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 8, 2009

    If Carl Zimmer was forced to cover, on a daily basis and without time to research, everything from astronomy and physics to archaeology and materials science, he would do a bad job, too.

    I disagree strenuously with this. Decent science journalists should be perfectly capable of covering a very broad range of science topics. The problem is that very few journalists–science or otherwise–are decent: the vast majority are lazy and incompetent, and so they just regurgitate press releases or otherwise abdicate their duty to get shit right.

  6. #6 Coturnix
    February 8, 2009

    There is a reason I never blog about physics – I would botch up at least 9 out of 10 of my posts. I have interest, but no expertise. I read Chad when there are physics news. No amount of study and preparation could help Zimmer not screw up regularly if forced to cover all of science – it has become too big, too complex and too difficult for any one person to understand well, even less to explain well to lay audience. This is why science journalism has to be distributed among a large number of experts.

  7. #7 David Dobbs
    February 8, 2009

    Thanks for writing, Bora. The limitations of small papers that you point out echo closely Helen Branswell’s comments in Effect Measure’s post; she defended an all-subjects-reporter colleague (whom I take it had been slighted about his flu reporting) along similar lines, noting that he had too much ground to cover to do them all in the sort of depth she was able to bring to her flu coverage.

    I see your point about the potential value of replacing such uneven coverage of issues with what amounts to a new network of specialists. But that has problems too, at least as a complete replacement. First, if the scientists are no longer working as scientists, but just blogging/reporting full time, then they’re essentially specialist reporters, no? So you’ve returned to specialist beat, only without (at least so far) a way to pay them.

    If, on the other hand, these blogger/specialists are still working scientists, I don’t see how we can rely on them to steadily have the time and sense of critical distance to be optimal reporters. (See Neurocritic’s posts above.) Sources, yes, commenters, yes, lenders of perspective, yes; but reporters and diggers-up of scattered important information, no. That takes time, believe me. And while these specialist-bloggers have knowledge, that knowledge can sometimes be rather siloed, and they also have obvious biases. Finally, for some stories they will lack a needed critical distance — for sometimes the most important story about a discipline is a story the discipline doesn’t see or doesn’t care to acknowledge.

    Again, these aren’t problems that the MSM solves perfectly, either. But the MSM does provide some structures and support and platforms that give it strengths the blogsphere lacks, just as the blogosphere serves to counter and check some of the weaknesses of the MSM. And I’m not saying these things can’t possibly be replaced in some online form of journalism/blogging/reportage — though no model is at hand at this point, and it distresses me to see people so willing and even eager and impatient to toss out MSM good and bad. If we’re seeking to replace the MSM — or have to, because it fails economically — we best recognize its strengths and try to make sure we carry over as many as possible to whatever might replace or supplement it. And let’s hope, God o God, that this shiny new world offers some comfortable way to read long pieces — print, digital ink, something, as hardly anyone reads anything longer than 1500 words online. (Ask Slate; they’ve tried it, and readership heads off a cliff as you pass 1000 words.)

    Finally, Zimmer and Judson and Mooney and I are free to write in chosen areas, and to get some depth in our reporting, only because of the MSM. (Well, I can’t speak for them with true authority; but I feel confident this is true unless they have nonwriting sources of income.) Zimmer may (or may not) make enough with his books to support him; but I feel safe in saying his books sell well partly because he publishes regularly in the Times. My own MSM income is essential, and while I enjoy writing on the web, there’s simply no way at this point I can make a living writing only for pixels instead of print — and no online-only outfits would run the longer pieces that most engage me and that I feel are my best and most socially important work.

    Finally, as to blogging ethics being responsible for whatever quality people find in my work : No go, and I suspect it’s much the same for Zimmer and possibly Mooney and Judson (whose work I know less well.) My ethics and sense of relationship to audience were shaped by my work in print media (magazines and books, as I’ve only a few short pieces in daily papers) and can’t be said to be some new ethics created in or “upgraded” by my blogging or accepting the blogosphere. Blogging lets me link, and converse, and track an issue steadily, and it makes it easier to state revisions of opinion — but while those are valuable additions, but they are changes not of ethics but of practice. (Meanwhile there are important things I lose when blogging, such as the time to research in depth and to explore a story in depth at one go.) The blogosphere ethics you refer — that is, those articulated by Jay Rosen don’t conflict with or necessarily supersede those of MSM journalists. His point, it seems to me, is not that the blogosphere has better ethics, but that it has them, and they’re expressed in ways different than in the MSM (via links, e.g.), so folks, quit saying the blogosphere doesn’t have ethics.

    Rosen’s much stronger and emphatic point, meanwhile, is that the blogosphere v MSM argument isn’t getting us anywhere, so, follks, quit beating this question by attacking “the other.” I could not agree more. The point is not which is better or deserves to die or has great or lousy ethics or good or awful writers. It’s that they bring different strengths and weaknesses and possibilites and constraints, we’ll make the best of both realms if we try to cross-fertilize strengths while avoiding or improving upon weaknesses.

  8. #8 Allie
    February 9, 2009

    As a journalism grad student, we are constantly discussing the shift from print journalism to online journalism. It’s how I got started blogging in the first place- from a teacher preparing us to be “journalists of the future”.

    That being said, I have also learned that there are very few science journalists who do, in fact, come from a science background. So far, I am the only science journalist in the program who actually comes with a background in science.

    How do people expect to do a good job of reporting on science when they don’t understand it to begin with? Even with my background, there are some topics (molecular biology, for instance) that I would never dream of reporting on, simply because I don’t have the expertise or background to understand it fully. And if I don’t fully understand it, then how am I supposed to properly explain it to my readers?

  9. #9 ddc
    February 9, 2009

    If science journalists restricted themselves only to disciplines they had expertise in, how much science journalism would there be? Good reporting on developments in molecular biology isn’t a matter of having qualifications and experience in that field to rank with those who are researching it at faculty level. A story with molecular biology at its heart may be, as far as public interest is concerned, a political story, in which case a good political journalist should be able to cover it, as long as she/he goes to sound sources to ensure what he/she says about the science is accurate. Journalists who do that are good journalists, whether working online or in print; journalists who don’t, aren’t. And, unlike bloggers, professional journalists are bound by codes of ethics other than those they choose for themselves. That doesn’t mean everything in the mainstream media garden is rosy, but neither do blogs have a monopoly of virtue.

    This ‘blogs will take over the world’ stuff from Coturnix is getting tiresome.

  10. Hi Bora

    I’m trying to work out whether I’m a bad science journalist or not…scary thought. If I am, then I’ve wasted the last 20 years of my life.

    I started out specializing in chemistry, that was my field. But these days, I cover everything from astronomy to zoology, although I still tend to do more chemistry than anything else. It’s all science after all, I’m still a specialist to my arts, humanities, finance, politics colleagues ;-) (As are they to me!)

    Anyway, I’ve posted a riposte on Sciencebase entitled “Astronomy to Zoology, Poetically”, hopefully it will trackback if you approve this comment.

    DaveB

  11. #11 Allie
    February 9, 2009

    To ddc: I’m not advocating that journalists specialize in one area and only that. And as for the molecular biology (or WHATEVER area) if it’s political then sure, a political writer could cover it. All I’m saying is that I don’t personally feel comfortable reporting a story if I don’t fully understand the science behind it myself. I simply couldn’t do it justice.

    There needs to be a level of understanding for science to be reported accurately. Without an understanding, how are journalists supposed to catch bad science, or explain some great new methodology? For my science/medical journalism class, I was the only one who had even READ a science journal article before, let alone knew about the importance of a peer-reviewed journal. And think of all the journalists who DON’T go through an academic program….

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