Ever have one of those times when you have a cool new blog post all ready in your head, just needs to be typed in and published? Just to realize that you have already published it months ago? Brains are funny things, playing tricks on us like this. I just had one of such experiences today, then realized that I have already posted it, almost word-for-word, a few months ago. It’s this post. But something strange happened in the meantime: that post, in my head, got twice as long and changed direction – I started focusing on an aspect that I barely glossed over last time around. So perhaps I need to write this one anyway, with this second focus of emphasis and instead of retyping the first half all over again, just ask you to read the old post again as it provides background necessary for understanding this “Part II” post today. I’ll wait for you right here so go read it and come back….
Are you back?
OK, so, to reiterate, about four or so months ago, I started monitoring media coverage of PLoS ONE papers and posting weekly summaries and linkfests on the everyONE blog. In the previous post (the one you just read and then came back here) I focused on the importance of linking to the papers, and why bloggers tend to provide links while traditional media does not. There is also a good discussion in the comment thread there. Here, I’ll shift focus on the quality of coverage instead.
Expectations before I started:
Before I was given this task, I was already, of course, aware of a lot of coverage, just not in a systematic way. After all, I needed to read the coverage on science blogs in order to make my monthly pick.
Reading science blogs of repute, or those editorially approved by the editors of ResearchBlogging.org, or those editorially chosen to join the networks like Scienceblogs.com or Discover, I assumed that I was predominantly seeing the best of the best of bloggy coverage of science stories and that there is probably some lesser stuff out there that I just did not pay attention to. If I noted some really bad coverage, I usually discovered it via science blogs on posts that debunked them – such bad coverage I saw tended to come from specialized anti-science or pseudoscience blogs whose political agenda is to misrepresent scientific findings in a particular area of science (e.g., blogs of Creationists or Global Warming Denialists). I assumed that there was also a bunch of stuff in the middle, OK but not brilliant.
Likewise, without specifically looking for coverage in traditional media, such coverage would often find me, either if a blogger linked to it, or via TwitterFriendfeedFacebookverse. Again, it was either excellent coverage of a big story of the week, or such egregiously wrong explanation that it was the duty of science bloggers to do the fact-checking and correcting in a public place – their blogs – so the audience googling the topic would hopefully see those corrections. Again, I assumed I saw only the best and the worst and that there must be a lot of middlin’ stuff in-between.
So, if I designed a scale to measure the quality of reporting, ranging from Amazing to Excellent to Very Good to Good to Average to Meh to Poor to Atrocious, I expected to see both blog posts and MSM articles spanning the entire scale in pretty proportional distribution, more of a flat line than a bell curve.
That’s not what I found.
What I found surprised me….and depressed me.
So, let me classify coverage by quality:
Anti-science and pseudoscience blogs actually rarely post about specific scientific papers. They are essentially political blogs, and thus most of their posts are broad, opinionated rants. When they do target a new paper, they tend not to link to the paper, which makes it difficult for me to find the post in the first place (my previous post describes detailed methodology I use to find the coverage).
There is plenty of anti-science and pseudoscience ranting in what goes under the heading of traditional media as well. Just like blogs, they tend to make broad opinionated rants and not focus on specific papers. HuffPo is notorious for pushing medical quackery and pseudoscientific NewAge-style woo. The things that look like media but are just well-funded AgitProp fronts for RightWing organizations sometimes focus on science they hate, especially Global Warming which they deny. Interestingly, unlike their cable counterpart which is pure ideological propaganda, the FoxNews website has relatively decent science coverage as far as traditional media goes.
It does not matter to me that many of those outlets are indexed in Google News – PLoS is a serious scientific organization and I will not reward anti-science forces with a link from our blog or legitimize them by mentioning them.
Some blogs are personal RSS-feed aggregators, automatically importing feeds from various sources, or with specific keywords. If those include links to the original, they are legitimate, if there are no links, they are splogs (spam-blog), but either way they are useless – that is not coverage of our papers, so I ignore it. In case of a very big story, sometimes I see a blogger who is not a science blogger post something about it – usually just a copy and paste of some text from ScienceDaily, rarely with any editorializing (e.g., a funny title, or a LOL-cat-ized picture) – also not to be considered original coverage, thus ignored safely by me.
Likewise, often dozens or hundreds of newspapers copy and paste (sometimes abbreviated) text coming from AP or Reuters or AFP or TASS. They are essentially equivalent to feed-blogs (since they usually say that this was from Reuters, etc.) or even splogs (since they never link to the original scientific paper) and only a technicality saves them from being considered outright plagiarism. Thus, I link to the Reuters original (which since recently started adding links to papers – Yay!!!) and safely ignore all the others – they are not considered coverage.
Sites like EurekAlert! and ScienceDaily collect barely modified press releases. If I can find the original press release on the University site I may link to it in my weekly post, but I do not link to these secondary sites – they are just aggregators, not sources of original coverage.
3) Poor-to-average coverage.
This comes 100% from the traditional media. Bloggers are either experts – scientists themselves (or science teachers or science writers) – and thus do a good job, or are not experts in which case they are not interested in science, do not blog about it, and certainly have nothing to say even if they copy+paste something sciencey from the MSM. So they don’t even try to write original blog posts with their own opinions. The middlin’ gray area just does not seem to appear on blogs. But there is tons of it in the MSM – the range of my quality scale from Average down to Atrocious is filled with MSM articles. They are bad, but they are “original reporting” at least to some extent (though probably warmed-up press releases, rewritten to use different words and phrases) so I include the links in my posts anyway.
4) Good to excellent coverage.
This is interesting. Many PLoS ONE papers get covered on blogs, and are usually covered wonderfully well. On the other hand, good MSM coverage happens only for the Big Papers, those that are covered everywhere (like Nigersaurus, Maiacetus, Green Sahara, Darwinius….). And then, those excellent MSM articles are written by well-known science writers in top media outlets (e.g., Guardian, London Times, NY Times….). Traditional media pull their Big Guns only for a rare Super-Paper, while bloggers cover everything well, big or small – whatever is their interest or area of expertise. Finally, I should point out that the websites of magazines and public radio (NPR or PRI) tend to cover science better than the websites of newspapers and TV outlets. At the latter, science is covered better by their resident bloggers than by the main news-site.
Why does PLoS treat bloggers as journalists, has bloggers on press list, and highlights the blog coverage? You can say we are nimble and ‘get it’, or that we want a perception of being cutting-edge, or that we’ll try to get whatever coverage we can get. But really, the most important reason we do this is because the coverage of our papers by bloggers is just plain better than MSM, and significantly more so.
So, when British Council only suggests science pages of newspapers for science coverage, or when KSJ Tracker puts together linkfests of coverage of science stories that is composed entirely of media organizations that existed 20 years ago, they are not just out-dated (and thus look like dinosaurs), they miss the very best coverage out there.
What is the difference between Good and Poor coverage?
I have been looking and looking and looking….and I think I finally figured it out. Scientific expertise or experience in covering science by the journalist (or blogger) is a relatively small factor in determining the quality of the article. Much more important is availability of space! Bad articles are short, good articles and blog posts are long.
A couple of inches is just not enough to cover a new scientific paper properly.
Let’s dissect this in more detail….piece by piece.
Lede – an MSM article will always start with it. But from a blogger’s sensibility, lede is weird. Strange. Artificial. Unnatural – nobody really talks like that! It is also superfluous – a fantastic waste of limited space. And it also feels so pretentious: if you are reporting on a scientific story, why start with a paragraph hinting you think you are some kind of Tolstoyevsky? Bloggers either jump straight into the story with a declarative introductory sentence, or start with providing context (including copious use of links) or occasionally start with a joke or personal story or a funny picture, then segue into the serious coverage (but bloggers have endless space so they can afford to waste some of it).
Human Interest paragraph – an MSM article always has it. Bloggers will have it if there is a strong human interest aspect to the story (though never interviewing Average Joe on the street to get a useless quote). Science stories are either “cool” or “relevant” or “fishy”. The latter two often have a human interest aspect to it which a good article and blog post with explore. But many ‘cool’ stories do not – the human interest starts in the reader’s mind while reading the story – the human interest is in reading the story about cool animal behavior or some wonder of the cosmos. There is no need to artificially invent a human interest aspect to such stories – those are often misleading, and always a waste of space.
Main conclusion of the paper paragraph – of course bad articles, good articles and good blog posts will have the main conclusion clearly spelled out. But good articles and blog posts have sufficient space to explain those conclusions – from methodology (is it trustworthy, novel, creative…), to authors’ conclusions (do they follow from the data, miss some important alternative explanation, or over-speculate). They have enough space to explain how those conclusions differ from similar conclusions reached by previous studies, etc. A brief article has no space for this, thus the summary conclusion is either too blunt and short to be accurate, or is too similar to conclusions that the reader has already encountered many times before.
Context – there is no space for context in a short article. Yet it is the context that is the most important part of science coverage, and of science itself – remember the “shoulders of giants”? Placing a new study within a historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological context is the key to understanding what the paper is about and why it is important, especially for the lay audience. Even scientific papers all provide plenty of context in the Introduction portion (and often in the Discussion as well) which is sprinkled with references to earlier studies.
Quotes – even the shortest article will have a brief quote from one of the authors and/or another scientist in the field, as well as sometimes another scientist who is a naysayer or skeptical about the results. Names of these people who are quoted are usually completely unfamiliar to the lay reader, so invoking them adds no heft to their claims. This is pure HeSaidSheSaid journalism and, again, a colossal waste of space. Not to mention that there are no links to the homepages or Wikipedia pages of these quoted scientists for the audience to see who they are. And we know that a cherry-picked quote that does not link to the entire transcript or file of the interview is a huge red flag and sharply diminishes reputation and trust of the reporter and the media outlet.
Why don’t science bloggers quote other scientists? Why should they? A science blogger is simultaneously both a reporter and a source. If there is a new circadian paper that I find interesting enough to blog about, I am both reporting on what other scientists did AND am a source of expertise in evaluating that work. Why quote someone else when my entire post is essentially an interview with myself, the expert – not just a quote but the entire transcript? The chances I will get something wrong about a paper in my own field are tiny, but if it happens, other people in the field read my blog and they will be quick to correct me in the comments (or via e-mail, yes, it happened a couple of times and I made corrections to the posts). Why add redundancy by asking yet another expert on top of myself?
So, a brief article contains a lot of unnecessary stuff, while it leaves out the most important pieces: the details of methodology and the context. Those most important pieces are also most interesting, even to a lay reader – they situate the new study into a bigger whole and will often prompt the reader to search for more information (for which links would be really useful).
If you are a journalist whose editor gave you plenty of space to cover a Big Story, you can have all of the above in your article, which makes it good. If you are writing for a magazine, it is to be expected you will have plenty of space to give the study sufficiently complete coverage. If you are a blogger, space is not an issue so you just write until you are done. When the story is told, you just end the post and that is it.
But if you are a beat reporter with gazillions of stories to file each week, under tight deadlines, and a couple of inches for each story, then at least try to think how to best use the space you got – is that lede really necessary? The quotes? Can you squeeze in more context instead? And end with a URL to “more information on our website”? Then write (or have someone else write) a longer version on the website, with more multimedia, and with plenty of links to external sources, explainers, other scientific papers, bloggers who explained it better?
How to rethink the Space Restrictions
Once upon a time, buying a newspaper or magazine was an act of getting informed. What was printed in it was what information you got for the day.
Today, a newspaper is a collection of invitations to the paper’s website, a collection of “hooks” that are supposed to motivate the readers to come to the website. Different stories will hook different readers, but they will all end up online, on the site (where they may start clicking/looking around). Why? To see more!!!!
What a disappointment when they come to the website to see more…only to find exactly the same two inches they just read on paper!!!! Where is “more”? Where is the detailed explainer, the context, the useful links? Not there? What a disappointment! But the reader is still interested and will Google the keywords and will leave your site and end up on a wonderfully rich and informative science blog instead, never to come back to you and your poor offering.
Public radio folks – both NPR and PRI – have long ago realized this. Have you noticed how every program, and often every story, ends up with an invitation to the listeners to come to the website to see more – images, videos, documents, interactive games, discussion forums, even places where the audience can ask questions (and get answers) of the people they just heard as guests on the radio? Radio understands that their “space” (time) is limited and heavily rationed (seconds instead of inches) and they use their programing as a collection of hooks produced specifically to pique interest in people, as lures for the audience to go to the website to ‘see more’. And there is a lot of that “more” on their sites for people to keep coming back.
Very few newspapers have realized this yet – some have, but their online offerings are still not rich enough to be truly effective. Let’s hope they start doing more of that if they want to retain the trust and reputation of their brand names and to retain the audience that is loyal to their brand names.