Blogging and Journalism

Bloggers blogging and journalists journalisming and related issues is once again a matter of currency with a long and thoughtful post by Sbling Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock about “The Shock Value of Science Blogs.” (In which, I guess, Bora does not see my blog as shocking enough to mention … thus proving that Sblings are not as insular and cliquey as we are often accuses of being. Well, we are cliquey, but that is more of an internal matter. But I digress) …

Anyway, Bora brings up a number of excellent points about the nature of communication in science as “…evolved towards a very precise and very universal state that makes scientist-to-scientist communication flawless…” a state of modern communication which ultimately demands alternative ways of communicating. Blogging, of course, is one of those ways, as is modified formal communication in the form of on line Open Access journals such as PLoS and PLoS ONE with their novel fora and inter-linking technologies.

Go read Coturnix’s post. I just want to add a few observations.

There are two levels of stylistic, motivational, and even ethical distinction that I want to make. One is at the level of scientist vs. journalist, the other at the level of what many people think of as scientists vs. the rest of us who are also scientists.

People are often confusing and conflating journalism with blogging, and in my experience in particular, journalism with science blogging. This is offensive and absurd, of course. It is offensive to journalists because this conflation assumes that one can become a journalist just by saying one is a journalist. Never mind journalism school, never mind knowing a single thing about journalism. It is absurd because of the vast gulf between the two fields. Let me give you an example.

Suppose I decide to address some issue regarding science, like the recent papers on approaches to elephant conservation in Africa. So I read a few things, I talk to two or three experts in the area, and I write something up. Now, when I’m done, I realize that there is a section in my write up that is a little ambiguous. I did not ask exactly the right questions of those with whom I spoke to be sure of certain details. I spoke with three different experts, and I have the time and capacities (based on time zones, communication modalities, etc. etc.) to speak to one and only one of these experts. Fortunately, the expert I have the ability to speak to is the one who would best clear up my question. All I would need to do is the following:

Call expert X on the phone, read her the paragraph in question, and ask her opinion on if it is worded properly.

Given this scenario, which of the following is correct:

a) Do not call the expert. Make the best I can of the information I have, even if this will result in a final write up that is itself a bit ambiguous.

b) Do no call the expert. If there is a bit of ambiguity in the writeup, divert the reader’s attention away from it by pointing out something else involved in this issue that really isn’t that important but can be made to seem important, like that some of the research mentioned in the paper may lead to a cure for some disease.

c) Don’t contact the expert but explicitly state in the writeup that there is some ambiguity in what I’m saying due to the fact that I did not really have enough time to straighten out some of the facts and conjectures.

d) Contact the expert to get her take on the working of the key paragraph, and re-word as necessary.

The answer to this question is, clearly, “a” as a first choice and “b” as an acceptable but not ideal choice if you are a journalist, and “d” as a first choice and “c” as an acceptable but not ideal choice if you are a scientist.

(Do you understand why? No? Then you are not a journalist and scientist. If you picked a or b and think you are a scientist, than maybe you should consider a career as a journalist! If you picked c or d, have a job as a scientist, you have a science blog, and you think this makes you into a journalist, then you need to address this….)

The difference between “a” and “d” is one of ethics. The ethical thing to do in each case is different. It is unethical for a journalist to re-check with one of the individuals interviewed (or any number fewer than all of the individuals interviewed) about the ‘facts’ or wording of the material to be published. In contrast, it is unethical for a scientists to not pursue an ambiguity when one knows about it. The scientists can certainly stop pursuing unkowns, or points of uncertainty but the scientists is obligated to note this in most cases (answer “c”). The journalist may feel a certain obligation to interest level in the writing for some greater good (like selling newspapers or keeping a job) and thus lean towards choice “b” rather than the ideal choice, “a.”

Within science, we also see contrasts and conflicts.


View larger image. Totally stolen and ruthlessly modified from here.

As you know, I often review peer reviewed scientific papers, mainly in the life sciences, on this blog. You’ll notice that I also treat papers in anthropology, in particular human evolution, human paleoanthropology, and archaeology. But what you have not seen much of is archaeology outside of the human origins area. This is not because I don’t find this interesting, or am not trained in that area. Rather, this is because it is hard to do. I have a paper by a colleague, Tom Huffman, sitting on my desktop right now waiting for my attention, to turn it into a BPRR post, but it is proving to be quite difficult because of the nature of the research Tom reports and the way it is written up.

This is not because Tom did a bad job. No, he did a great job. It is rather because this area of archaeology … as is the case with a number of areas of science … is in fact NOT treated in the literature as Coturnix has suggested for science in general. It is not the case that these research results are written up in the standard scientific form or that they even follow a coherent form within the subfields.

This distinctiveness is true in a lot of other ways as well. Here, I encountered the following example of wild naivety:

No one obtains a loan for a PhD program in science. They are always funded.

Wow. Elsewhere (but I’m not going to bother to run this down and cite it) I’ve seen similarly dumb statements about science that can only be seen as based on the belief that all science is done in a lab, as though there were no field scientists. Within the academy, this is often a problem. All PhD students are held to the same standard of time for completion of the degree by certain agencies and evaluators of such programs, despite the fact that non-bench field science often takes an additional year or two to complete. Imagine if the typical PhD student in a lab science had to learn … at a very high level of competence …. two or three poorly documented unwritten languages before collecting any data.

I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that some of my fellow scientists forget that not all science is done in a wet lab. Well, it bothers me a little, but not much. After all, what we field scientists lose from being left behind in that discussion we gain, in spades, in the social benefits of being the most interesting people at cocktail parties.

What is troubling are the broader impacts of this sort of thinking. The comment I cite above from The Intersection is part of a discussion of funding science. If you look around on scienceblogs, you’ll see lots of excellent discussion (here, especially) about women, minorities, and the most maligned class of all, graduate students, in science. But most if not all of that discussion is about wet lab bench science. In my area, the same sorts of attrition against women occur as elsewhere, but to a much much lesser extent probably because we have been enlightened longer in relation to these issues. Or, perhaps, because women (and to some extent minorities) somehow have ended up, goodness knows how, in the field that is not well funded, and is in fact forgotten about even by our fellow scientists when they talk about funding.

Recently, I contacted a person I know in politics to ask for verification or refutation of a very interesting rumor I had heard, and to see generally how she was doing. The response I got was friendly and informative of a number of things, but when it came to the question I had asked, she, as an insider in a particular organization, said (and I paraphrase): “I cannot give you the answer to that question. Our policy is ‘blogger = journalist.’ … You’re a blogger!”

Ouch. If I want to get through the secret back door of an event, or whatever, blogger does not equal journalist! We don’t get press passes! But if I want to learn something interesting, it does! Of course, I understand her perspective, and I responded with what amounted to a respectful early version of the post you are now reading (bloggers are not journalists, unless they happen to be journalists!).

By the way, there are, in my opinion, a lot of excellent science journalists out there, but for science reporting in general, I think the interested, informed reader is going to get a lot more out of the bloggers than the average science reporting.

This post is not going cure cancer or save the baby furries. Have a nice day.


  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    December 22, 2008

    Nice addition to the discussion. However, are you sure that you really want to get into the ongoing nature/nurture debate on the origins of furries?

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 22, 2008

    I had no idea.

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    December 22, 2008

    Well, I made up the debate part. I’m not sure I could make up the rest.

  4. #4 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    December 22, 2008

    Does anybody besides me find he between horgan and johnson pretty much unwatchable? It would help if they would actually look into the cameras instead of acting like they are uninterested, but even with that they are boring. Fuddy-duddies, too.

  5. #5 Lou FCD
    December 22, 2008

    I think, Greg, that you have omitted the most problematic choice, and the “go-to” answer for the vast majority of Science journalists, in my experience:

    e: Don’t call the scientist, just make shit up.

    That’s the one that I most often see, and the one that really pisses me off.

    As for George, the meathead in the BH video, he may know his way around a verb or two, but that segment showed me all I needed to know about the quality of his journalism. I’ll not waste any more time reading/viewing him. He exemplifies the arrogantly ignorant dinosaurs of the field.

    Fortunately, these incompetent middle-men are about to go extinct, and the public’s scientific literacy will be the better for it.

  6. #6 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    December 22, 2008

    Oh, and I wouldn’t fee left out that Bora didn’t mention you specifically. If he had had the time, he would probably have listed all 77 of the science bloggers, but he was all ready planning a lengthy post.

    I know why politicians have that policy about bloggers, it’s because they know that journalists are scanning the blogosphere for anything; and if a journalist misses something then the “muckrakers” like Brodkorb will pick it up.

    I still want a press pass as a blogger, though.

    Mike H.
    Blogger, not journalist.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    December 22, 2008

    Oh, and I wouldn’t fee left out that Bora didn’t mention you specifically. If he had had the time, he would probably have listed all 77 of the science bloggers, but he was all ready planning a lengthy post.

    That is just me giving Bora a hard time. He is a fantastic community builder and is famous for his comprehensive link fests.

  8. #8 Coturnix
    December 22, 2008

    I was going to list all 77, but Mrs. Coturnix issued a call for Hanukkah dinner at that time so I abandoned the project! Actually, analysis of rhetoric and stylistic tactics of all of us would be an interesting exercise of its own.

  9. #9 Zach Miller
    December 22, 2008

    I don’t understand why it’s unethical to call and ask for directions when you don’t know where you’re going (as I so often see in newspaper or news site science stories). How can confirmation or better understanding of what you’re writing about possibly damage your piece?

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    December 22, 2008

    Zach: I’m not going to pretend to know the details behind this. I’m not a journalist! But I’ve been interviewed by dozens of them and I always say, ever since the first time when the story was libelously mangled, “contact me if there is any need for clarification of any kind” and I usually get back “Can’t do that, against the rules.”

    Although, in truth, some do, but I am bound by promise to not say when that has happened.

  11. #11 lylebot
    December 22, 2008

    It’s true that there is a rule, but it seems to me to be applied over-zealously. The rule exists so that if you’re writing a story about, say, Dick Cheney being indicted for war crimes, you don’t go to Dick Cheney for his opinion of your story (or worse, to let him rewrite it) before submitting it. It seems perfectly OK to me to go to a scientist you quoted and ask them if your piece is clear.

    David Simon (former journalist, creator of The Wire) talked about this in an interview somewhere. In the fifth season of The Wire one of his journalist characters violates this rule. The rule isn’t actually mentioned on the show, because what the journalist did does not seem to be ethically out of bounds at all, but apparently some of its fans in journalism noticed. I’ll see if I can dig up the interview…

  12. #12 Name withheld out of fear
    December 22, 2008

    lylebot: I totally agree with you but the vast majority of actual journalists I know of simply do not. Personally, I think it is overused and it is a way of doing less work on a story than otherwise. But I don’t want to say anything bad about journalists.

  13. #13 Pascal Lapointe
    December 25, 2008

    About your a, b, c, d choices: there is something missing. A lot of journalists I know do frequently send their source a paragraph asking them to see if there are any factual mistakes. What we, as journalists, can not do is send a paragraph with the implicit idea if you don,t like the way you said it, you can change it. THAT would be unethical.

    Either you misunderstood what the journalist meant when he was saying to you he couldn,t send you his article, either the journalist did not want to bother (which would be bad).