The Intersection

My post last week about the death knell of science journalism prompted some incredible responses. Here’s Larry Moran, putting it more bluntly than I expected, and enunciating an opinion we’d better hope does not prevail:

Seriously, most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it.

Maybe the general public would have been more interested in science if science journalists hadn’t been writing so much hype about “breakthroughs” for the past twenty years. Maybe the public would have been more interested in science if so-called “science” journalists hadn’t been confused about the difference between science and technology.

Science isn’t about what the latest discoveries can do to make your life better. It’s about learning how the natural world actually works. It’s all about knowledge and not application or politics.

Science journalists have let us down. I say good riddance.

Breathtaking, huh? I seriously hope opinions like this are not very widespread in the scientific community.

Honestly, based upon the foregoing, I have to question whether Larry Moran knows what a science journalist is–or at least, whether we’re talking about the same thing. For it seems to me that virtually everything he’s complaining about, a real science journalist would complain about as well.

Take the media slights against science described above–the hyping of “breakthrough” findings, the confusion of science and technology, and the swapping of serious science coverage for “feel good” or “news you can use” infotainment fare. Although you will certainly find exceptions, in general these aren’t the fault of dyed-in-the-wool science journalists, of the sort that proudly claim membership in the National Association of Science Writers (as I do). In fact, you can bet that within their respective media organizations–when they still were working within them; most of NASW today is freelance–science journalists have fought against many such calls over the years.

And you can also bet that they frequently lost out in those internal battles.

The point is that nobody loves science more than science journalists–and nobody more devoutly wishes to see it covered accurately and widely, so that the “general public” thereby benefits, and comes to appreciate science more thoroughly. So how is it that now, a scientist like Larry Moran won’t stand up for these science evangelists in the media, and blames them for a host of failings that, in truth, they themselves most assuredly abhor?

Pascal Lapointe, another commenter on that same thread, and himself a science journalist, makes this observation:

I think, Chris –hoping you’re still reading this many days after your original post– [er, yes] that the comments above are saying indirectly a lot about our problem, as science journalists: we don’t have many allies.

Yeah. Maybe the problem is that most people–even most scientists–don’t know what a specialized science journalist is. And now, maybe it’s too late to change that fact.

In Unscientific America, Sheril and I go into the history of this whole problem–and show how science journalism has struggled virtually from its inception. I think awareness of this broad communication issue is growing, but I also think we have a lot of traditionalists out there who are stuck in an old paradigm for thinking about science, media, and society.

Luckily, there are also innovators. Last week, for instance–before I was felled by a nasty stomach bug, which threw off my reading schedule, of which more soon–I dropped by the office of Princeton’s Climate Central. It’s a new nonprofit science journalism outlet that has cropped up to fight back against the death of science coverage in the corporate media, and its top public face is Heidi Cullen, whose Weather Channel show “Forecast Earth” was canceled in one of many, many science journalism cutbacks of recent years. Now, Climate Central is creating climate journalism content directly for TV news and other outlets, and involving scientists integrally in ensuring the information is accurate and relevant.

This route–the Climate Central route–is a productive way of fighting back against current trends in the mass media. Kicking science journalists when they’re down is…the precise opposite.

P.S.: Just anticipating the comments…this post is not about “framing.” It is about the simple empirical fact that science journalism is vanishing today from the mainstream media for broad economic reasons. Now obviously, I have made arguments about “framing” in the past–and these more involve the content and shape of science journalism, as opposed to its mere existence. However, that’s an old debate, and I’ve since moved on. So let’s stay on point–the topic is the death of science journalism. Thanks.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    February 23, 2009

    Possible source of confusion:

    What appears in the media is called “journalism”.

    If news about science appears in the media, it is “science journalism”.

    Science journalism must have been written by a “science journalist”.

    What Larry and many others are complaining about is the state of science reporting in the media. People who put that crap up in the media are ‘science journalists’ by definition.

    Perhaps good science journalists, like you, Carl, Olivia, etc. should forcefully take the term “science writer”, in order to distinguish yourselves from science ‘journalism’.

    You see, for most people, there is no difference – if it’s in the paper, it’s journalism written by a journalist (who is ever going to dig through to see what was a press release, what was a wire story, what title was done by an editor?….it’s all ‘journalism’). Then, people like you are pointed out as “excellent exceptions”. But no, really, you are a totally different animal. Just because your stuff shows up in MSM, does not mean it is science journalism which just happens to be better than most – it is a different medium: science writing.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    February 23, 2009

    We also had an interesting discussion about this here a couple of weeks ago – also check the links in the comments, i.e., to the commenters’ names.

  3. #3 Markk
    February 23, 2009

    As a consumer of “science journalism” as practiced by newspapers and large TV stations I am very sorry to say I am closer to Larry Moran than I wish.

    The problem isn’t specifically science journalists, but they are part of the system and the “system” distorts results, does not understand what people are telling them, shows ridiculous things like a whole Time magazine cover and many articles about “faith and science” recently. It is the people who chose stories, the people who edit, the people who slant. All of this contributes to me thinking that that my time would be better off without this type of coverage.

    Where are the “science journalists” ripping into the anti-vaccination movement in Pulitzer prize winning articles? Where is the health coverage that isn’t parroting the latest paper result but is actually doing investigative science reporting of a field? Holding office holders to account for their scientific gaffs? Really going after the crap science that is out there and looking at who is behind it and why? When I get a sick feeling in my stomach most of the time from watching the science coverage on news networks and things like the History Channel and Discovery channel, I think the system is really broken.

    The only bright spot seems to be some good books, a few magazines (Science News comes to mind) and the internet. I don’t know that this situation is science reporters fault, but it is a bad situation. Part of it is that the best science reporting is probably anti-soundbite.

  4. #4 John S. Wilkins
    February 23, 2009

    I can’t speak for American scientists, but my experience as the PR (another useless profession… I kid, I kid. Only PR is useless) guy for an academic institution trying to get science journalists to understand the topic under discussion is that despite being professional science journalists (possibly not as specialised as you have in mind), they were uniformly unable to grok the point of most of what was told to them. There were a couple of honourable exceptions, but their copy did not survive the subeditors.

    The fact is, in my experience, that the press and visual media are incredibly unsuited to communicating facts, and this is, IMO, a flaw of any attempt to use the media to restore either confidence in, or knowledge of, science. Journalism and public relations have a goal – to impart attitudes and to do so by manipulation of the audience (lectience?).

    Science stories must be “sexy”, which effectively means they must comply with the standards of drama, conflict, and resolution that the media require. And there are at best less than 20 templates for the narratives that are acceptable and familiar to editors.

    I agree with Bora – you are science writers, science communicators, but not science journalists. Journalism itself died with gonzo journalism, when the medium became more significant than the message; science journalism is doubly dead.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    February 23, 2009

    This FriendFeed thread was also very interesting – it also contains links to several interesting posts on the topic.

  6. #6 Chris C. Mooney
    February 23, 2009

    Everybody,
    We seem to be stumbling on a basic point of definition. Science “writer,” science “journalist”: I don’t distinguish because this is mixing up the type of medium used with the subject matter.

    I think the core point is this: Does everybody agree that there is a group of specialized science journalists/science writers whose job it is (or used to be) to cover the scientific community and the knowledge it produces, particularly the articles published in the peer reviewed literature? And that in general, these journalists know more about science than your average reporter, and in fact have been trained to know more?

    In other words–do you agree that there is now, or at least used to be, specialization, and that specialized science writers even have their own society, the National Association of Science Writers?

    Because then the next question becomes, are these *specialists* the problem with science’s treatment in the media? Because it’s that question to which my answer is a resounding no.

  7. #7 Coturnix
    February 23, 2009

    These specialists are good. That’s what we are saying all along. The problem is that most science news is not written by those specialists, while specialists are mostly relegated to specializes publications (e.g., pop-sci magazines and such). The science news written by idiots is ‘push’, the quality science writing is, unfortunately, ‘pull’, i.e., only people interested in science in the first place will look for it and find it.

    How do we insert expertise into the ‘push’ part of the media?

  8. #8 Jon Winsor
    February 23, 2009

    These people seem to have the right idea:

    http://www.climatecentral.org/about.html

    The “blue ribbon network” especially.

    I think the other part is to muckrake and consistently shine a light on the organizations providing disinformation–as Brad Johnson is attempting to do at the Wonk Room. Hopefully, that info eventually gets out to the wider community of media and journalists, although it seems hard to know if you’re *really* getting through.

    Seems like it might be useful to get reliable numbers on how much the journalistic community “gets” science issues–whether they know the score on controversial issues, and know the best practices for reporting on them.

  9. #9 Chris C. Mooney
    February 23, 2009

    Hey Bora,
    I’m glad we’re agreed about basic terms/concepts. And I’m glad that you support these science specialists in the media–or at least, who used to be *in* the media. Now they’re losing their jobs.

    So the question becomes, isn’t it kinda disturbing to find that even as journalists who care about science are losing their jobs, they’re also being slammed by some scientists/science bloggers–without even any attempt to make the intellectual distinction you and I have just made? I mean, you might not like all “specialized science journalists” (maybe this should be my new term) or every piece of specialized science journalism, but surely they deserve better than this.

  10. #10 Coturnix
    February 23, 2009

    I think this conflation is the problem. Critics of science journalism are really criticizing what they see in MSM – the sensationalist, error-rich “news-reporting” about science, then lumping all types and formats of science journalism together with it. Then good science writers like you (and Carl, Dobbs, etc) feel quite rightfully defensive about your profession, as you have just been attacked.

    I think we need to make a clear distinction, whatever terms we agree on (e.g., journalist vs. writer, or “beat science journalists” vs. “specialized science journalists”) and make people always be clear who they are talking about when criticizing science journalism with a broad brush-stroke.

  11. #11 Aaron Golas
    February 23, 2009

    For it seems to me that virtually everything he’s complaining about, a real science journalist would complain about as well.

    Be careful, that sounds an awful lot like the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    Actually, Chris, I’m not so sure that Bora agrees with you on the basic terms. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you think the trained specialists have exclusive claim to the name “science journalist.” He seems to be arguing (and I tend to agree) that any journalist, specialist or not, who writes about science becomes a science journalist, at least in the eyes of the majority of the lay public.

    As for the role of the specialist: if the specialists are responsible for advocating good science writing, yet “frequently lost out in those internal battles,” isn’t that, in a sense, “let[ting] us down,” as Larry put it? Not that that necessarily merits abandoning them, but it may go a ways toward explaining the bitterness.

  12. #12 Ashutosh
    February 23, 2009

    Larry Moran’s point is always about scientific accuracy, and he always says that science journalists often sacrifice accuracy for the sake of dumbing down the science or sensationalism. But let’s leave that point aside for a minute. For me, a “science journalist” should not be restricted to someone whose work is published only in the mainstream media. A science journalist should be anyone whose work reaches a mass audience. To this end, for me Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould are both science journalists of the first caliber. Why restrict science journalism to that published in the mainstream media? In the end it does not really matter where the science is described, as long as it reaches the most number of lay people. With this definition in mind, I do think that professional scientists and science writers like Carl Sagan, Dawkins, James Gleick and Robert Hazen have done a much better job at science journalism than many of those journalists who write about science in the mainstream media.

  13. #13 Matti K.
    February 23, 2009

    I think no one should be above criticism. You yourself made some generalizations about the communication skills of scientists:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/13/AR2007041302064_pf.html

    With this article, you managed to infuriate some professional scientists. Yet I’m sure you did not mean to say that all scientists are lousy communicators.

    In the light of the above, I do not understand why you take almost personally the criticism scientists have directed on the the (generally) naive and inaccurate reporting of science in the main media. I don’t think Moran’s or ERV:s comments will cause a rain of pink slips for science journalists. If anything, such criticism emphasizes the need of more professionalism in science writing.

  14. #14 Markk
    February 23, 2009

    I agree 100% with Coturnix here. Science Journalists are those people who put their name on stories in newspapers or magazines about science, are those reporters who host “science” stories or cover them on TV on whatever channel, even if its something on ESPN about describing how a knee surgery is important or whatever. There are good ones and bad ones, but the ones I see most on TV and when I read mass media are not good. I don’t know if you want to create some kind of “mass exposure index” where you could tell that the vast majority of stuff that people see is not from the “good guys” but personally I think that is true.

    Whether this is an editorial problem, media problem, whatever, it is also a science journalist problem. They (you) have to eat of course, but in the big picture the results are grim.

  15. #15 llewelly
    February 23, 2009

    Larry:

    Seriously, most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it.

    Chris:

    I seriously hope opinions like this are not very widespread in the scientific community.

    As has been discussed here in the past, most of what passes for science journalism is not written by journalists who specialize in science. I think that journalists who specialize in science have done their best to promote a sane view of science – but they have failed. (Despite their best efforts.)

    The evidence for the danger of global warming has been growing for decades, has been overwhelming for years – but even the NYT continues to fail to report it in a sane fashion. And as we saw with the recent infamous New Scientist cover, even journalists who specialize in science can mishandle evolution dreadfully. (Fortunately they printed the rebuttal – but already creationists are brandishing the misguided cover at the public.) Given these and other long standing failures of science journalism, such as the anti-vaccine pro-measles craze, I find I agree (except for the last line Chris quotes) with Larry – ‘most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better off without it’, to borrow his quote. There’s an important minority – not included in that ‘most’, I presume, and usually written by journalists who specialize in science, which will be missed, should it disappear. But it’s not clear that it will disappear. Perhaps, as traditional journalism crumbles, these people will find another way to subsidize their blogs – or perhaps not.

    But the damage most of what passes for science journalism has done to the public understanding of science, and the reputation of scientists, is a travesty which has gone on for decades, and if it really does go away – I’ll be very glad to see it gone.

    I’ve seen in these discussions that some feel people like Larry are eager to throw out the baby along with the bathwater. But given examples such as Angier, Revkin, Flannery, Zimmer, or, for that matter, Mooney, newspapers have not carried their best output – not by a long way. Their best work has been books (which may not be around any longer than newspapers) or blogs. The baby is not in the newspaper side of science journalism. It is not a given that people like these will have no ability to talk to the public without newspapers.

    Let’s suppose people like these can no longer communicate science to the public after the death of newspapers. I think that would be a severe loss – but given a new podcast, blog, or (should they survive) book popularizing science, would I choose any of the aforementioned science journalists over Dawkins? No. Over PZ Myers? No. Over Phil Plait? No. Over Darren Naish? No. Over Abbie Smith? No. Larry Moran? Maybe. I do not intend to imply the dangerously false dichotomy that the choice is between scientists with blogs and science journalists, and I don’t know whether scientists with blogs can replace the few good bits of traditional science journalism for the general public, but I learn more from the work of scientists with blogs. And if popularity is a measure of communication, Phil Plait, PZ Myers, and Richard Dawkins all do very well.

    (Unfortunately, I cannot immediately link to any scientific effort to estimate how well a person’s understanding of science correlates with the sources of information they rely on. )

  16. #16 Chris C. Mooney
    February 23, 2009

    Hi Llewelly,
    You raise, in essence, the next set of issues.

    Basically, they turn on whether blogs somehow replace newspapers for coverage of science–or not. And whether some of the communicators you’ve indicated replace the specialized science journalists I’ve been talking about–who certainly have their faults.

    I’d be happy to go there–I have my views, though I’m limited by concerns about scooping our forthcoming book. But first, I’d like to get a bit more consensus here that specialized science journalists are not the problem, so we can stop what I view as the really shortsighted attacks on them–scapegoating, even.

  17. #17 Coturnix
    February 23, 2009

    We agree that science writers like you, Carl, Olivia, Rebecca Skloot etc. are good and not the problem.

    One problem is that in many people’s minds, especially the newspaper people (but also some in the audience), newspapers = news. That is not true. Death of newspapers does not mean death of news. News will be just as needed and just as consumed once the newspapers are dead.

    But just slapping a newspaper onto a website is not enough: medium is the message, and online medium is different enough to require a different way of doing journalism altogether.

    Paper, ink, presses, trucks and truck drivers….those things are expensive. Thus, ‘real estate’ on the printed page is expensive. Thus, someone has to decide who gets to have words (or images, cartoons, obituaries, ads, horoscope,…) printed on that piece of real estate. People who decide this, the pre-publication filters, are called Editors.

    Online, the expense is extremely low. Thus, the filtering happens after publication. There is no need for Editors, as everyone and their grandmother can put stuff online, on that cheap real estate. But how do we filter post-publication? Those filters are not developed well enough yet. We still need both technological and social methods for filtering content so out of those millions of pages of text/images/videos only the highest quality rises to the top and becomes widely visible to everyone. This is what Google has been trying to do all along – find algorithms that will bring the best stuff to the top of each search. This is what FriendFeed does in a different way: instead of a technical fix, you get a social fix: seeing stuff that people you trust deem good.

    Thus, what is online is a mix of stuff produced by “professionals” (i.e., people indoctrinated by j-schools) and amateurs (who tend to write about the areas of their RealLife expertise). The professionals may write better, in a sense of ‘more skillful at using English language’, but amateurs’ writings are of higher quality due to their expertise on the subject. If you look at the comments people leave all around the Web whenever the “future of journalism” is discussed, the audience prefers the expert amateurs to journalistic professionals, mainly because MSM has lost all credibility with the audience, while many top bloggers have gained a tremendous level of credibility due to their expertise, and due to their lack of j-school training: they never do the HeSaidSheSaid crap.

    But, bloggers don’t want to replace journalism (I don’t want to have the expectation to blog about every latest circadian paper – it’s my personal blog and I’ll write what I want on it) – they want to help build a new model of online journalism in which professionals will: a) learn the online writing mechanics and ethics, b) become experts (or, due to their previous careers in science, etc., already be experts), and c) do their job honestly, abandoning some of the j-school tropes that led to the MSM loss of credibility. You wrote a book about this – who am I to tell you.

    I am looking for something like Ars Technica, or Seed Media Group, or Nature Network becoming prominent PLUS places like HuffPo, TPM, Slate, Salon becoming serious about science and hiring a whole stable of science writers (some originating from journalism, some from science) in order to cover the science by experts.

  18. #18 Mike Lemonick
    February 23, 2009

    I think pretty much everyone has completely missed Chris’s point about whether science journalists are responsible for the hype and breakthrough-chasing that appears in newspapers and elsewhere. His point was that they’re forced into this mold by editors who have decided this is the way to sell papers (note his use of the term “internal battles”–that’s what he means).

    Whether we (yes, I’m a science journalist) should or could have resisted more strongly, or quit our jobs on principle is another question. But at least let’s talk about the actual issue he raised. BTW, whoever asserted that James Gleick does a better job than science journaliss in the so-called MSM will undoubtedly be horrified to know that Gleick was a reporter for the New York Times, and would undoubtedly still be if Chaos hadn’t been such a success.

  19. #19 Ashutosh
    February 23, 2009

    I think the point is that Gleick may have been a journalist for the NYT and that his science reporting for the Times may even have been terrible, but the fact is that Chaos did a much better job of science “journalism” than all the reporting; it was extremely engaging and well-written and presented the science accurately to a good approximation. It reached a wider audience than most science journalists hope to during their career. Chris’s point that science journalists may have been forced to fit the mold by editors is well-taken. The point that’s important to me is simply that the mainstream media has mostly ceased to be the place for model science writing and reporting, even if much of the public still views it that way. Books and blogs are becoming much better in this respect. The criticism is not of the people, it’s of the traditional source that they work for as an authority on the best popular scientific writing. As for the fact that science journalism is vanishing from the mainstream media for economic reasons, that’s a sad state of affairs indeed. But it still does not excuse the poor quality of science reporting.

  20. #20 Lilian Nattel
    February 23, 2009

    Mainstream newspapers are floundering. They’ve gotten rid of their book section. And from what you and others have said, their science journalism. I don’t read newspapers anymore. Nor do I watch tv news. What for? A bite of fear? A swallow of dread? That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an appetite and need for information, but that those outlets aren’t providing it. I love science journalism and I am out there talking about science blogs to everyone I meet. Amid the helpless doom and gloom, this is a reminder of the wonder of the world. We need that sense of wonder now more than ever. Blogs don’t replace more indepth journalism, but have a lot of flexibility to complement it and to generate interest among those people, like me, whose work lies in another field.

  21. #21 Matti K.
    February 23, 2009

    Chris:

    “But first, I’d like to get a bit more consensus here that specialized science journalists are not the problem, so we can stop what I view as the really shortsighted attacks on them–scapegoating, even.”

    I think that whenever scientists critisize the general quality of science journalism, they should end their comments with a disclaimer: “This does not apply to Specialized Science Journalists”

  22. #22 Lactate dehydrogenase
    February 23, 2009

    I still like to get most of my “science journalism” from books. Maybe some of you have heard of those? One author here especially has written a nice book himself, so he would know what I am talking about. I agree that good books that clearly explain science, usually written by scientists, are far superior to most news articles and short pieces about science.

  23. #23 Jon Winsor
    February 23, 2009

    This is from a recent Q & A with a fairly prominent reporter at the Washington Post:

    Rochester, N.Y.: Shailagh, I doubt you’ll take this one but if anyone here will, it’s you!

    Is there any concern that the lax standards of the editorial page (in particular, its refusal to retract false claims made in a recent George Will column) lessens the prestige of the news division at the Washington Post? Personally, the Post is my favorite paper, but this kind of thing makes it awfully hard to take anything in the paper seriously.

    Thanks.

    Shailagh Murray: I will post this without comment…but rest assured, all of us in the ailing newspaper business are highly receptive to ideas from readers about how we might improve.

  24. #24 ponderingfool
    February 23, 2009

    But first, I’d like to get a bit more consensus here that specialized science journalists are not the problem, so we can stop what I view as the really shortsighted attacks on them–scapegoating, even.
    **********************
    They weren’t attacks on people who are good at their jobs. Larry Moran for example attacks scientists who over hype their work & in the process distort the science. Not everyone does it but it is a problem for science as a whole. When he makes that criticism, is it a shortsighted attack on all scientists? Larry as well it should be noted does point to good science writing and Carl Zimmer does get mentioned on his website in a positive light. I think you are making a mountain out of a molehill. The attack was overall of science journalism. Bad science journalism does negatively taint science. There is a cost. Larry is expressing the belief that the cost is too great.

    He is dealing with the reality that MSM is beholden to modern capitalism with its eye on short to intermediate term profits. Science coverage is being reduced because of that. What coverage there is must fit into helping turn a profit. That reality it seems is reducing what role there was for specialized science journalists to even more of a niche market. In MSM it means less quantity and lower quality overall. In this scenario, Larry maybe right. The problem is not like Larry pointing this out. It is the system. You have to change that. That is a challenge, much easier to rant against one another liking the talking heads on TV.

  25. #25 Chris C. Mooney
    February 23, 2009

    Folks, there’s a ton here, and Larry Moran has responded–not with much concession or nuancing of his previous blast at science journalists (“good riddance”), but he does call my book Storm World an act of “sensationalizing.”

    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2009/02/future-of-science-journalism.html

    I want to say a lot of other things, but can we just box for a second, and put to one side, the whole subject of science books? The book industry is in upheaval like the newspaper industry. It is not at all clear that science books are getting better, or faring better, or even what their future is–but there are many reasons for thinking it may not be very rosy.

  26. #26 Ashutosh
    February 23, 2009

    It is unfair of Larry to call “Storm World” a sensationalist publication. First of all the book is not purely about science, so it seems misguided to thrash it as a science book. Secondly, hurricanes and global warming are fierce political issues, so the subtitle of the book makes complete sense. It’s hardly sensationalism, it’s writing about the facts.

  27. #27 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    February 23, 2009

    Does anyone else find it curious that what Moran calls “sensationalizing the subject” is the same material that the American Meteorological Society described as “an accurate and comprehensive overview of the evolving debate on the impacts of global warming on hurricanes that illustrates the complexities of this significant scientific problem” when they awarded Chris the J. Battan Author’s Award?

  28. #28 Robert Grumbine
    February 23, 2009

    Convenient that comments have turned to the American Meteorological Society, as meteorology is the example I’m drawing on.

    Anyone who works in or near meteorology, as I do, gets immediately negative reactions from general public (including scientists in other fields) when they hear that we’re in that area. The basis for that negative reaction is the ‘meteorologists’ that they know — the people on their nightly TV ‘news’ show who present the weather. The reality being, most of those who present the weather are not meteorologists. Wanda the weather bunny (i.e., scantily clad woman, popular in many incarnations in the 1970s especially as weather reader) is much better known than Bob Ryan (local TV forecaster and former president of the AMS), and vastly moreso than Jule Charney (one of the people who helped invent modern numerical weather prediction).

    The people who really are meteorologists got seriously peeved quite some time back. Their peevishness passed the point of merely saying “we’re not one of those“, which seems to be where you are at the moment in science journalism, and went on to what to do about it. I don’t think they’ve got great solutions, but a start is the AMS (and NWA) certification process (seal of approval). That is, a process from the professional association to certify that there were some people who viewers/readers could have reason to believe actually knew something about what they were talking about, and could present it reasonably well.

    Larry may be doing nothing more than I encounter routinely of equating you (proverbially) to the most commonly-seen practitioners of your profession. So as far as that goes, welcome to the club.

    In any case, you have to figure out some responses to your equivalent of the “You people are always wrong.” that meteorologists continually get.

  29. #29 Jon
    February 23, 2009

    Robert, I think you make a good point.

    But I’ll also add that, from the point of view of a typical TV viewer, the view that “meteorologist = weather reader” isn’t crazy precisely because most of them don’t interact with other people who’d be presented to them as meteorologists.

    Fair or not, that’s how people react — and it’s a perfectly reasonable reaction. It’d be absurd for everyone to just assume they’d never met a “real” practitioner of some field even though they felt as if they had.

    Similarly, since nobody explicitly talks about a distinction between science writers and science journalists in mainstream media, why would most people make such a distinction? There’s no reason for them to do so, in general.

    As a side note, I have noticed stations putting the little AMS logo on-screen when starting their weather segments.

  30. #30 A Siegel
    February 24, 2009

    I wonder how much of the problem is due to expert reading people trying to communicate with the general public. No matter the issue, there are very few times where a reporter’s story will satisfy top experts / real specialists in a field. ‘Why did they use that word? That phrasing implies more certainty than we have! That is an oversimplification! But what about X …’

    Thus, the “scientists” reading science journalists in general media outlets (read newspapers) often get frustrated over what they perceive as inadequate quality, seeking to hold discussion to standards that are often impossible to expect in a general publication and to a difficult standard for any journalist (journalists have to be, to some degree, ‘generalists’ … generalists almost always disappoint / anger specialists). Thus, there is a natural basis for disdain for science journalists … a disdain that one gets past by thinking about the nature of journalism, an educational process that is not necessarily part of many scientists formation / weltaunschauung.

    A different angle …

    I find that good science reporting in the newspaper are among the top items that are likely to be dropped into conversation by someone in the coming days / weeks. They are stories that often have ‘stickiness’ (in terms of people remembering) and have interest. I wonder what the commercial polling from the newspapers tells them in this regard.

  31. #31 Robert Grumbine
    February 24, 2009

    Jon: The AMS logo is your sign of the certification that I mentioned. It means (unless the station is using it without authorization, which does happen) that the weather segment is presented by an AMS-certified broadcaster. Making the certification public is another part of the AMS response — it’s something viewers can look for.

    One of my stranger experiences was watching Pat Sajak on Letterman, and the two of them talking of their days as TV ‘weathermen’.

  32. #32 Robert Grumbine
    February 24, 2009

    Siegel: I think I’m going to expand on the idea in a day or two over on my blog. But, in the mean time, … a couple of thoughts.

    First, though, I have to say I’ve only had one encounter with large scale media, as a scientist, and it was very positive. I think so for both me and the journalist. (Couple more as a runner/coach/club president, also positive.)

    What I’ve heard most from colleagues complaining about their encounters with journalists is not that the full detail of their wonderful science was lost — most of us realize that the daily paper is not a scientific journal — but that things which the scientist did say clearly, were important to understanding the significance (or lack) of the topic, and which were explained in commonly-understandable language were ignored. Instead, the journalist (or public affairs office) had a preset story they were going to tell and any bits that didn’t ‘fit’ got lopped off, regardless of what that did to the representation of the science. The scientist’s contribution was not information or knowledge, but a name to attribute quotes to. And no care taken to get the quotes correct even as far as they went.

    Simplification, I think most scientists (and science journalists), are ok with. And those that aren’t don’t have my sympathy. Oversimplification, however, is a very serious problem to us. Oversimplification has taken you in to misrepresenting what’s up, or, just plain lying about what the understanding is. Some stories, perhaps, just can’t be done in 250 words without oversimplification. If so, scientists would, I think, generally be ok with some other story being told — simply, but correctly. There is certainly a ton of science being done out there. It isn’t like there’s only one or two science stories a week waiting to be told.

  33. #33 Pascal Lapointe
    February 24, 2009

    Reading all this, it remembers me 4 things that non-journalists almost always forget, the first two having been said by Chris, but with not much emphasis:

    1) it is easy to blame science journalists, but you are forgetting they do not have a lot of power, and society is partly responsible of it. In the last 30 years, newspapers and TV editors have cut their specialized science news teams (CNN is only the last of a very long list). Their justification: there is no market. And in the vast majority of cases, neither the scientists neither the local universities have complained about it.

    2) specialized science journalists are a minority in the journalistic community. They are marginalized in newspapers and TV newsrooms. In fact, the majority are freelancers, which mean they are a) scattered, or b) in the obligation to produce for a living (if they do not produce an article, they are not paid).

    Political journalists or sports journalists are much more powerful and when they protest, there voice is more easily heard.

    3) forget the myth that scientists can replace specialized science journalists. That will NEVER happen. Because no scientist can do his full-time job AND do the full-time job that is required to write articles each month for science magazines. Yes, this scientist can blog, but a few sentences a day can not replace a many pages articles. And investigations are almost out of the question.

    Please note that I am not saying articles are superior to blogs. I am saying these are two different things. We can argue ad infinitum if the loss of specialized science journalists would be compensated by the gain in scientists blogging. Nobody can be sure of that for now. In 30 years, maybe we’ll know.

    4) And finally, the most important thing some scientists are forgetting when saying something like: :
    the damage most of what passes for science journalism has done to the public understanding of science, and the reputation of scientists, is a travesty which has gone on for decades, and if it really does go away – I’ll be very glad to see it gone.

    Following what I’ve said in (1 and 2), science journalists, like Revkin and al., could indeed disappear, if no editor wants to pay for it anymore.

    But science jerks like your nemesis George Will, are not disappearing, because, there will always be a market for those kind of big mouths. A much, much bigger market than there ever will for scientists who are trying to argue studiously and rigorously, whether in newspapers or in blogs.

  34. #34 Robert Grumbine
    February 25, 2009

    Pascal: Your points 1 and 2 themselves forget about something basic. That is, newspapers (et al.) are not concerned about what the tiny fraction of the population who are scientists have to say about what the papers publish. You think science journalists are a small minority at a newspaper? Do some looking at just how few scientists there are. If science journalists are depending on scientists to save their jobs, they should go back and learn math.

    I like good science journalism, and my one encounter with it first hand (story now up on my blog) was quite positive. The reality, unfortunately, is that media outlet owners are deciding that science doesn’t sell. Scientists aren’t going to change the owners’ minds any more than science journalists are. (Now if you have specific ideas for what we can do past ‘send a letter to the editor’, by all means have at it.)

    What would get their attention is science journalists setting up a concern that started making money from stories about science.

    In the mean time, it really isn’t a question of scientists putting up blogs versus having science journalists write at media outlets. As you say, the media outlets are shutting down their science sections. The question is whether we’ll have any science information directly available to the public. For now it looks like there are only a handful of outlets and handful of science journalists that will do it from the media side. The scientists can sit on their hands, or do what they can at blogs.

  35. #35 Pascal Lapointe
    February 25, 2009

    Grumbine: Surely, you don’t think that scientists are the only one who read science articles in newspapers. But if somebody could take the lead in complaining about the dissappeance of (good) science articles, that should be the local scientist… and the local university: how many of them buy adds in local newspapers?

    Because it would have more chance or creating a debate than the ordinary citizen. And it is only if it creates a debate that the editor could change his mind about the absence of market.

  36. #36 Eli Rabett
    March 2, 2009

    To summarize: Journalism doesn’t do boundary conditions.

    In science speak: For the most part journalist have difficulty understanding and explaining the limits of applicability of any study

    In the newspaper: Nobel prize anticipated