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.)

Among other things, this panel took up the article panelist Lindsey Hoshaw wrote about the garbage patch for the New York Times and some of the reaction to it (including from panelist Miriam Goldstein).

Lindsey’s article was interesting because of the process. To get a spot on the ship going out to the North Pacific gyre, where the garbage patch is, she had to come up with funding. (We learned during the session that ship time on some of these expeditions can run to $18,000 a day.) Rather than pitching the story idea to the New York Times and hitting them with the bill, or covering the cost of the ship time herself, she “crowd-sourced” her participation — that is, she turned to readers of Spot.Us, a nonprofit web project that supports freelance journalists, for donations. The pitch she gave when asking for this money described deliverables:

Online photo slideshow and an article that is under consideration by the NY Times. I will also provide separate photos, blog posts and a debriefing for the Spot.Us community that will be made available via Creative Commons.

and answered the question “How Will This Reporting Help?”:

This report will educate the public about marine debris. It will bring new light to ocean pollution and provide one of the first reports about how toxic chemical are entering our food chain. Many scientists believe that ocean pollution will be one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, this slideshow will be one of the first to show direct footage from the Garbage Patch.

It definitely seems like an exciting opportunity for a freelance journalist. However, while the process that put Lindsey on the position was innovative, her blog posts during the expedition were engaging, and her slide show was interesting, her Times article seemed to fall short. It wasn’t just the scientific errors in the reporting (although arguably, those got the marine scientists most exercised), but the question of whether the article itself really gave the public new information or even a new angle on the garbage patch. And it seemed to suggest a larger question: Why are print news stories boring relative to blog posts or videos from same expedition? Is this the result of relatively conservative editorial standards? Or is there something about the story-telling you can achieve in a newspaper article that is just not able to convey the same sense of being involved that other media can?

Of course, there were plenty of other questions that crowd-sourced expedition journalism like this raises.

One of these was whether the lines between journalism and advocacy might be blurred. What if funding to put the freelance journalist on the expedition comes from an advocacy organization? What exactly might such donors imagine they are buying? How might these expectations influence what the journalist experiences or reports? How might they influence what happens to the stories, pictures, or videos the journalist brings back?

Another big question is how journalists and scientists on the same expedition interact with each other, or don’t, while the expedition is underway. On the one hand, there is the potential to convey lots of information about the day-to-day details of what researchers actually do on an expedition. On the other hand, there is the potential for a journalist to get in the scientists’ way (or to knock expensive equipment overboard, or what have you). As a consumer of science stories, I would be really excited to see more description of the process of scientific research. As someone who used to do science, I can well imagine how much I might want to have other people out from underfoot so I could just concentrate on my scientific mission, avoiding the distractions that might make me mess up what I was trying to do.

Hitting the right balance, obviously, is a challenge.

There’s also the problem that while scientists may want more public awareness of and interest in the work they do, they also want to succeed as scientists. Among other things, this means they want their findings to be accurate, meaningful, and publishable. They do not want the presence of journalists on a scientific expedition — especially journalists who are blogging and tweeting their experience — to result in them getting scooped. Nor do they want tentative findings to be mistaken for well-established findings, nor noise to be mistaken for signal. What looks like “breaking news” to a journalist may look like a promising start that needs a whole lot of follow-up to a scientist. Someone at the session said that the typical marine science expedition is mostly about collecting samples, which is then followed by a couple years of processing them. In other words, much of the real scientific work is happening in labs well after the expeditions are over. (Where are the journalists documenting this scientific activity, making it vivid and meaningful to their lay readers?)

If the journalists and the scientists don’t embark on these expeditions understanding the significant differences in their views towards what they’re likely to see, they’re likely to spend a lot of time miscommunicating and mad at each other.

On the question of who’s documenting everyday scientific activity, like the processing of samples after an expedition, of course there were a number of research scientists in the room who are also bloggers and thus can do just that. It seems, too, like scientists need to be part of the conversation about how to grab the public’s attention while getting the science right. If getting the journalistic ethics right is also important, you probably need journalists to be part of the conversation. Does this leave any room for advocacy groups? How many different aims and sets of standards for pursuing those aims can coexist without things imploding?

It’s sounding like scientists and journalists may start getting some empirical data on this.

All the panelists seemed committed to the project of getting the public interested in the ocean ecosystems, and they noted that there are different ways to keep interest in the ocean alive. A harder question was whether the public is interested in what’s really happening, or if their interest hangs on a picture of the oceans that is not supported by facts.

Near the end of the session, it was noted that the mainstream media’s loss of complete control of the stories the public gets about marine science and the state of the oceans (given blogging, and expedition videos on the web, etc.) means public is more exposed to messiness of science. Is this a good development, helping non-scientists understand science as a process? Or does this kind of radical transparency run the risk of undermining public trust in scientific results and the scientific process? (My own hope is that it’s a good development, but it’s possible I’m unreasonably optimistic about the average non-scientist’s capacity to understand something important about how science works.)