Almost a year ago, Nature published a set of opinion articles, including Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood by Toby Murcott. I did not react at the time, but JR Minkel and Jessica Palmer did and got some interesting responses in the comments. The article was brought to my attention by Gozde Zorlu who is ruminating on the same ideas and will have a blog post about it shortly (and I will let you know when it’s up).
The article covers a lot of ground and has many layers. I finally read it and these are just some really quick thoughts, just to provoke discussion…..
First, Murcott is complaining about being essentially a lay-person outside of his own domain in biochemistry. That is true. Science reporters who don’t have any scientific background are in an even worse shape – they definitely have a handicap, but not something they cannot overcome with years of study. But for this, they need to have the freedom to focus on only one area of science, e.g., Andy Revkin focusing on climate, Carl Zimmer on evolution, etc. I wrote a little bit about this before.
If you have spent some time in science before moving into journalism, you understand that years of total immersion in the field are necessary to fully understand it – I mean a narrow field! And not just the purely scientific information, but also historical, philosophical and social context, who-is-who in the field, relative strengths of various hypotheses, etc. You understand that it is impossible for a single person to gain a full understanding of every area of science.
- Can you play violin?
- Sure, of course
- Have you ever played?
- No. But it looks easy, I’m sure I can do it.
This is how non-scientists often think about science. This includes some journalists, until they get started on science reporting and realize that it’s not as easy as it looks. But their editors do not grok it. Editors think of ‘science’ as a single thing – there is a sports-guy and a fashion-guy and a science-guy in the newsroom and they get assignments accordingly. Which means that the poor science reporter has to report on everything from cosmology to math to medicine to ecology with no time to actually study these areas sufficiently to understand them. Of course they get nervous and exhausted and touchy…
But in the era where newsrooms are firing in-house journalists and relying more and more on freelancers, this is an opportunity for freelance journalists to put a stake into a particular territory: specialize in one field and refuse to write stories outside it. That way, a journalist who has become, over years of study and reporting, an expert in field A, will only report on A, will be on rolodexes (I guess not virtual but real physical ones) of every editor in the country/world for stories on A and will be asked all the time by everyone to cover A. And will do it really well. Each editor will have a list of experts on A, B, C and every other area of science. With specialization, biochemists will not have to risk showing off their ignorance of astronomy, media organizations will know they have all topics covered by the best of the best, and the general quality of reporting science will increase.
In the next segment of the article, Murcott seems to want more investigative science journalism. But, compare this to this. Connie St.Louis and I have the opposite ideas what science journalism is. I am not specifically targeting Connie, it just happens that I am aware of her post that puts into words, very clearly, what many other journalists say or at least hint at.
Everything that I think is science journalism, she dismisses as not being ‘real’ science journalism: science reportage and explaining. And one aspect of it that she thinks is the real science journalism is the only one I think is really not – “investigative science journalism” is, in my book, just the regular investigative journalism in which the people under scrutiny just happen accidentally to be scientists. The former (science reporting and explaining) requires that the journalist understands science, the latter (investigating potential misconduct by people who happen to be scientists) does not. As I said before, if the investigation involves analysis of data, it is done by scientists and reported in specialized media: scientific journals (these can be then translated into lay language by journalists and reported to the general audience). If the investigation involves potential misconduct of humans who happen to be scientists, it is done by journalists, but it is not science journalism any more – it is more something like political journalism (as misconduct usually involves money and prestige).
Steve Mirsky (editor at Scientific American: here on Twitter ) once said, and I agree with him, that all of science journalism should be activist: evangelizing for truth (not capitalized). There is no mealy-mouthed HeSaidSheSaid, False-Balance, View-From-Nowhere tabulation of opinions held by people. Science journalism is straightforward: this is how the world works and this is how we learned it.
Which brings me to another important question: why professional journalists dismiss Press Information Officers. If journalists think that journalism that investigates scientists is what should be called ‘science journalism’, and see that what PIOs are doing is not that, they will not think of PIOs as journalists. On the other hand, if you agree with me that investigation of scientists is not science journalism, but reporting and explaining science is, than PIOs, many of whom have science degrees, are actually doing the brunt of science journalism these days. Sure, not all of them are perfect, and not all press releases are good, but they are getting better (as science majors are replacing j-school majors as PIOs at many institutions), they are, seeing how media is crumbling, starting to see themselves as serious journalists filling the void left by the massive layoffs of science reporters in the MSM, and are writing better and better copy, usually much better than what remaining newsroom reporters write under horrendous deadlines and pressure.
In other words, as we realize that scientists, PIOs, journalists and audience are in it together, collaborating on science reporting, we need to eliminate this antagonism between newsroom journalists and institutional journalists (formerly known as PIOs). For that antagonism to be eliminated, the two need to agree on what the definition of science journalism is. And I don’t think defining it as ‘investigating potential misconduct of scientists’ is a good and healthy definition. It is much more productive to leave that kind of stuff to political reporters (who will be tipped off by scientists themselves, as was always the case: all data-fudging was first discovered by other scientists, the only people with expertise to notice it in the first place) and have everyone focus on real science journalism – reporting and explaining science.
Next, Murcott wants to move science journalism from a) presenting facts (including results of latest studies), to b) presenting how scientists work and their method. He, and many others, forget that the key element is the third level: c) trust. Read this carefully to understand why. So, all three things need to be reported. Eyeing every paper and every press release as suspect, and treating scientists as dishonest until proven otherwise, is one of the journalistic techniques that undermines the trust in science. Whose side are you on, guys? Creationists, GW-denialists, HIV-denialists and anti-vaccers? Job of a journalist is to explain the world as it is. Science is the best method to figure out how the world works. Use this method as a journalistic method.
Scientific method has several (actually many) elements in phases, but one can oversimplify here: get an idea, test it, communicate it. Yes, communicating science is a part of scientific method. Which is why both scientists and journalists have to do it, hopefully together as allies, not as opponents eyeing each other with suspicion. See also many of the reports from scio10 – almost all of them focus on the need for collaboration between scientists, press officers and journalists, not antagonism. It’s a new ecosystem today. And the new niche for science journalists is NOT the top predator any more – the mindset has to shift from the competitive to a collaborative view of media ecology.
The story is important, as humans are storytellers by nature, but the story is a hook that takes people to the wealth of underlying information, the background, and the data. Each news-report needs to be embedded in a broader structure that also contains an “explainer“. Which is why it is essential for the story, the “hook”, to link to all the relevant background information and data.
Finally, we get to Murcott’s wish to see reviews….the reviews that scientists have written during the process of peer-review of manuscripts. Murcott, pressed for time, thinks that being able, as a journalist, to see the reviews, would help him understand the story better and glean some of the context that he is missing because is writing a story outside of his area of expertise and has not time to study it first. In essence, he is asking for a shortcut that helps him do his job. But he is not considering how this would affect the review process.
First, it is important to remind everyone that peer-review is a very new thing. Only one minor paper by Einstein went through peer-review. Nature only started experimenting with it in the late 1960s. Yet lots and lots of great science was published before this was instituted. There is no data supporting the view that peer-review actually does much good.
We at PLoS ONE are trying to improve the process. What we have noticed (and most of our academic editors and authors agree) is that by eliminating the need for reviewers to evaluate if a manuscript is novel, exciting, revolutionary, paradigm-shifting, mind-boggling and Earth-shaking, and only asking them to evaluate the technical aspects of the work, the review becomes MUCH better:
You can search the Web for many discussions of “open review” and you will see that there are many more cons than pros. The reviewers will find it difficult to be frank. Fewer people will agree to review (and there is already too many manuscripts for the available number of reviewers). Showing reviews to journalists would have exactly the same effect, for good or ill. Having a journalist see reviews is …a crutch for a journo who does not have the time, or expertise, or inclination to do the heavy lifting of personal education and everybody would object to this, rightly so.
Specialization of journalists – each grabbing one’s own area of expertise – and the collaborative journalism done by scientists, PIOs, journalists and audience, would make a ‘peek’ at reviewers’ comments unnecessary and irrelevant. The collective WILL have all the necessary expertise and historical/philosophical/sociological/theoretical/methodological context to get the story (and attached data/information) right.