Adventures in Ethics and Science

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that stayed with me from this session. (Here are my tweets from the session and the session’s wiki page.)

The panelists made a point of stepping away from the scientists vs. bloggers frame (as well as the question of whether bloggers are or are not properly considered journalists). They said some interesting things about what defines a journalist — perhaps a set of distinctive values (like a commitment to truth and accuracy, possibly also to the importance of telling an engaging story). This, rather than having a particular paying gig as a journalist, marked the people who were “doing journalism”, whatever the medium.


Does the centrality of such values mean that “being a journalist” is as much a matter of who you are as of what you do? (My hunch: yes.) And given that “being a scientist” is also supposed to be defined by a serious attachment to truth and accuracy (among other values), this suggests there might be some interesting stuff going on under the surface when scientists and journalists interact — when they’re cooperating and when they’re taking each other to task.

As the blogging journalists on the panel described their reasons for blogging, an interesting balancing problem emerged. On the one hand, blogging could provide an outlet (as Ed Yong described) to write stories it was hard to persuade mainstream media outlets to tell — in other words, letting the journalists pursue science stories they wanted to write. David Dobbs shared three reactions that help him identify the stories he wants to write: “Wow! This is intriguing,” “Something smells funny here,” (e.g., in stories about pharma’s shenanigans) and “How does science embody or entrench deep cultural beliefs (& vice versa)?” A story that didn’t raise some interested response in the journalist along these lines probably wouldn’t be much fun to work on (or, I reckon, to read).

On the other hand, all of the journalists on the panel conveyed a clear sense that successful science writing is writing for an audience — sometimes an audience that knows it’s interested in science stories (and is willing to seek those stories out), sometimes an audience that was reading a non-science story in the adjacent space that gets sucked in to your science story. It sounds like there’s a delicate balance here, thinking about the needs of the readers while still writing stories that interest you (the journalist). Maybe this is where the blend of specialist knowledge and generalist experience (mentioned by Ed Yong) comes in.

Given the generally awful news one hears about the state of the newspaper business (and mass media in general), I was surprised at how positive this panel of journalists was. The image that stuck with me was Carl Zimmer‘s description of a journalistic ecosystem (which I guess you can view in terms of the landscape for journalists or the landscape for media outlets, depending on which sort of critter you are). What I like about this image is the suggestion that diversity of the ecosystem is a good thing. Given the economic challenges big newspapers are experiencing, it should be clear that not every newspaper should try to be a big newspaper. (And maybe the big newspapers need to rethink their own survival strategies.) Fighting over a single niche (even if it seems to be the one at the top of the food chain) may be a suboptimal strategy. This suggests that blogging, too, can exist in the ecosystem, filling a niche that it’s suited to, without killing off everything else.

If you’re a journalist trying to survive in this ecosystem, there is the small problem of finding paying gigs — you’ve got to eat, after all. The panelists suggested that a certain amount of flexibility (about the venue for which you’ll write, not the centrality of your journalistic values) was key. Some publications won’t give you the 5000 to 8000 words to tell the story you want to tell, but others will. If the publication that’s happy to run your story about sexual dimorphism in ducks is unprepared to host the duck sex video you got from the researchers, you can post it on your own site and interested folks will find it. There was discussion of changing strategies for making a living out of science writing, including fellowships as well as story fees. The panel was short on doom and gloom, long on enthusiasm and apparent resiliency.

But arguably, maybe this had to do with the panel being stacked with successful science writers. There is still the question of how to reconcile the fact of the massive influx of journalist talent (noted by Yong) with the observation that editors are always looking for more interesting science stories and writers. As with any ecosystem, some critters are going to succeed and a lot of critters will get munched. (Actually, I think the panelists in the “Pitches that Pay” session spoke to that — I’ll try to connect the strands when I write my post about that session.)

Another thing that struck me in this session: there seemed to be something approaching confidence (although maybe it was something slightly more fragile than that) that even without force-feeding science to the public (you know, because it’s good for them) people are getting drawn in to interesting and important science stories. Ars Technica readers may turn up for the gadget news, but they get sucked into the science stories — including some that challenge their reflexive skepticism about climate change. Readers of tattoo magazines may absorb some science content in that interview with Carl Zimmer. Video game discussion forums and art projects on paleontology websites have people enthusiastic about scientific content, and duck fetishists are learning about sexual selection in the evolution of avian genitalia.

Arguably, this is a pretty positive thing.

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues to worry about. One that came up near the end of the session was the problem of press releases masquerading as journalism (including websites that look like they’re presenting science “news from major universities”). Journalists and scientists may be able to recognize the difference between a press release on a new research finding and an article written on that same research finding (by a journalist, rather than someone whose job is to bring fame and glory to the university where the research occurred), but can a layperson be expected to recognize the difference? Journalists may be wedded to transparency and accuracy, but it’s easy to see the kind of temptation press releases represent for editors who might not have the same critical filters as good science writers. Moreover, they may appear enough like objective science reporting to the casual consumer of information to fool that consumer and cause trouble.

I guess the press releases are the mimetic organisms in the ecosystem.

Anyway, the take home message was that good science journalism is not dead, but is adapting to a whole new set of niches. If the science, the journalists, and the general public consuming science writing (among other kinds of news) can figure out how to coevolve together, some really cool things may be on the horizon.

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    February 3, 2010

    I liked Carl’s “ecosystem” analogy, as well. Rather than blogger-journalist variants simply filling old niches (as if we could only fill particular slots that existed out there but nothing in-between) I think many writers are creating new niches. As in the wake of a mass extinction, generalists who already have “adaptive” traits will probably do will as things are hashed out, with specialization coming after things get a bit crowded. Over the next few years there could very well be an adaptive radiation of sci writers as new technologies and approaches meet traditional media outlets.

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    February 4, 2010

    This has suddenly made me remember that this whole evolutionary metaphor that we used in the panel came from David Dobbs and I’ve thus far spectacularly failed to credit him for the idea.

  3. #3 Chris Rowan
    February 4, 2010

    I should preface this with the fact that I thought this was an extremely interesting and productive session, and the following in no way applies to the extremely talented and conscientious people who chaired it. But I did have a slight problem with the criticism of Futurity – not that I’m a great fan of “press releases masquerading as journalism”, but when a large chunk of science “reporting” on the MSM side also consists of press releases churnalism, it seems a little hypocritical to criticise Universities for deciding to remove the middleman. In fact, arguably it is even worse when a slightly trimmed press release is published under a journalist’s byline – which is a far, far cry from the obvious value added when people like Carl, David, and Ed write up a story.

  4. #4 Rod Rose
    February 4, 2010

    Anyone who re-arranges a press release and by-lines the result is not a journalist. He’s a plagarist.

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