Laelaps

Science bloggers vs. journalists, again

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It doesn’t quite beat creationism as the most tiresome topic on science blogs, but the regular argument over whether mainstream science journalism or science blogging has more of “teh awesum” comes pretty close. We science bloggers try to focus on how we’re making a difference in science communication, while every now and then another MSM article or editorial comes out assuring us we’re just taking part in a passing fad.

In a show of snarkiness that had me going “Not this again…”, science journalist George Johnson recently went on a rant about my Sb colleagues Ed Yong and Abbie Smith, decrying their “exasperating ignorance” of his profession. He painted himself as a wise sage of science writing, while Abbie was belittled as a sheltered scientist who knew little outside the confines of her “rat hole of a laboratory.” (In a case of inopportune timing, this particular bloggingheads chat appeared on the front page of Sb, no less.) His diatribe contained almost no actual substance, and instead relied on straw man arguments and ad hominem jabs.

Ed and Abbie have posted their own replies, and Bora and Greg have piled on with some more meta, but I’m sure we’ll be have this debate again. Journalists have their own echo chambers and we have ours (the main difference is that our gripes are usually blog fodder!), and each side pats their comrades on the back and says “Their way of doing things is dying. Who needs them anyway?”

More often that not, it seems that science blog-supporters and science blog-critics are talking past each other. We complain in generalities and get the requisite “harrumphs” of approval from our particular side. Yet who among the wider pool of science writers are journalists, and who are science bloggers? If, like Olivia Judson, you write a science blog for a MSM establishment, are you a journalist or a blogger? Carl Zimmer, one of everyone’s favorites in print and on the web, likewise spans the divide. Does being a journalist simply come down to training? Or is it writing for an institution and having to run work by an editor? If the latter question is answered in the affirmative, then I would qualify as a journalist for my work at Dinosaur Tracking, but I don’t feel at all comfortable with that title because whatever modicum of writing talent I have has been entirely home-grown. The point is that we rarely define our terms because it’s much more convenient than having to stop and think about what we actually mean.

This confusion over definitions can lead us to be long on vitriol but short on substantive critique. It would be idiotic of me to say that all science journalists are full of it and that their days are numbered due to the rise of the science blogohedron (h/t to Blake for the term). There are good science journalists out there, but what I think grates on the nerves of many science bloggers are the people who modify press releases and come up with horrible summaries of new research.

In my primary area of interest (paleontology), for instance, the emphasis is often on the biggest, the meanest, the fastest, the strangest, etc., and claims can easily get overblown. From the grumbling I’ve seen elsewhere on the web, this general complaint seems to hold true for other areas of research, too. Would having scientists, or generally more science-savvy people, write for newspapers and magazines help iron out this problem? Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to research, scientists can fight like cats anyway, so I have no doubt that we’d still be complaining about what so-and-so said in a given article. Being able to ditch most of the jargon in explaining concepts to the public does not always a good science writer make, either, and there is certainly something to be said for the training that professional journalists go through.

As I have said before, I think that rather than replacing print media, science blogs can serve as a talent pool of people who have a strong science background and can write well. Transitioning from the web to the printed page requires some changes, but I think that science blogs and “traditional” science writing can complement each other. (I’m not suggesting that every blogger work towards this end, as some people have a style that wouldn’t translate well, but I think it could work for some bloggers.) I am definitely glad to see the way in which science blogging has grown and evolved, but I think it’s a bit daft to think we’re going to replace the people writing for newspapers and magazines. If anything I hope the intersection between science blogging and journalism is widened; I hope more professional writers would engage science bloggers and that good science bloggers would start writing for newspapers and magazines. The two are compliments to each other, and the bickering over science superiority is not only unhelpful, but it often induces yawns from this writer.

Comments

  1. #1 deang
    December 22, 2008

    I wish people would quit seeing writing for websites or blogs as qualitatively different than writing for print media. As with print media writers and journalists, there are different levels of quality among writers in electronic media. It makes about as much sense to disparage all blog writers as it would have to dismiss all magazine or newspaper writers when magazines and newspapers were new phenomena.

  2. #2 Laelaps
    December 22, 2008

    Dean; Precisely.

  3. #3 Jennifer Ouellette
    December 22, 2008

    I just tried to submit a long comment on Bora’s blog saying pretty much this. But you phrased it better. :)

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    December 22, 2008

    I do think it is valuable to recognize that journalism is an actual profession.

    Here’s how to identify a journalist. Invite a bunch of people to a must-go to event. Then, when they get there, tell them that they can only get in with press creds. Those who whip out their creds and walk in are the journalists. Those who start to whine and moan that of course they are journalists, let them in, bla bla bla are the bloggers. Those who silently turn away and leave are the journalists who forgot their creds.

    Blogging is not a thing we do. Blogging is a context in which we do things. Some are journalists, some are graduate students in some field or another, some are whateverwhatever.

    There is no confusion in terms. There are just some bloggers who think they are journalists because it turns out they don’t have a clue what a journalist is.

    And yes, as you point out, Brian, and dang too, there is a huge variation in quality and a strong tendency for people looking and talking past each other!

    Not to self promote or anything, but I urge anyone interested in this to take the Quiz I provide in my post about it!

    Nice post, L. Much better than one of those print bloggers would do!

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    December 22, 2008

    I like the word blogohedron (which I picked up from physics blogger Tom Swanson) because it carries the connotation of something with sharp, pointy edges that will poke you if you don’t pick it up carefully.

    I’ve said on many occasions that it’s obvious newspapers have resources that I don’t: they can pay people to fly around, poke under rocks and ferret out answers. If you’re trained as a journalist, and if you have the backing of an organization, you can investigate in a way which a guy like me can’t. And, precisely because the content you deliver is novel, the Internets will eat it up.

    Now, I can also do things which my father the reporter couldn’t. I’ve had the benefit of years of formal training, I know where to look for background information, I have colleagues I can contact, I have a broad understanding of the way arguments in science generally work, and so forth.

    If everybody just took a chill pill, we could probably do things a whole lot better all around.

  6. #6 Laelaps
    December 22, 2008

    Blake; That’s precisely the reason I used the term. “Blogosphere” makes this place sound nice, but it can be awfully pointy at times.

    Where could I purchase some of these “chill pills”? Perhaps we should set up a DonorsChoose page, because a lot of bloggers seem to need them.

    I just wonder where we got this idea that blogging and journalism have to be mutually exclusive entities. (The “We can’t truly live unless the other one dies” sort of thing.) I also think that, as Jennifer pointed out at Bora’s place, we’re largely preaching to the choir and not quite as important as we think we are.

    We get mad at MSM journalists with large audiences while we grumble about in our blog-caves. As I said in the post, maybe we should look for ways to get people with good science backgrounds into the media (and support the work of those already there) than keep calling for the heads of science journalists to be placed on pikes.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    December 22, 2008

    Being able to ditch most of the jargon in explaining concepts to the public does not always a good science writer make, either, and there is certainly something to be said for the training that professional journalists go through.

    The reference here is to Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, and the flaws of presentation therein. This raises an important point: does the professional training of a journalist actually prevent the kind of errors described in the aforelinked review? Empirically speaking, it doesn’t seem so. A journalism degree without a basic familiarity with scientific processes leads, it often appears, to the classic clichés: two vocal dissidents without any solid evidence to back their claims make a “controversy”, every discovery is a “breakthrough” if not a “revolution”, and so forth.

    Are these errors unavoidable? I don’t think so. If more people are aware of the problem — and if they actually see it as a problem — then maybe we can make inroads on solving it.

    What one needs to avoid these blunders is not, perhaps, training as a straight-up journalist, but an education as a science expositor. After all, would we expect practice in writing about high-school football be particularly helpful when reporting on international politics?

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    December 22, 2008

    I also think that, as Jennifer pointed out at Bora’s place, we’re largely preaching to the choir and not quite as important as we think we are.

    It’s a wonderful feeling to be vitally important to a very small group of people.

  9. #9 Laelaps
    December 22, 2008

    Blake; In terms of my review of Coyne’s book, I was thinking more in terms of the way the book was organized and written. It was a pretty boring read (a point I did not describe in detail in the review), and perhaps I should have made it more explicit that I was thinking about narrative and actual writing skill. What I meant was that simply because scientists can speak plainly doesn’t mean they can convey ideas effectively. If all science media was written by scientists our problems with science communication would not instantly be solved.

    There is certainly room for improvement, but there will always be things to criticize. There is a lot of variation among scientists and journalists in terms of writing ability and effectiveness. Some scientists have been excellent expositors of science (Gould, Sagan, etc.) and some journalists could probably be scientists if they wanted to (Zimmer, McPhee, Oullette, etc.). I just reject the notion that if science writing was turned entirely over to scientists that there would no longer be reasons for us to complain about MSM science coverage.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    December 22, 2008

    I just reject the notion that if science writing was turned entirely over to scientists that there would no longer be reasons for us to complain about MSM science coverage.

    I agree fully.

    Seldom in my schooling as a science person was I ever tasked with explaining something to people who had substantially less experience than I. When we wrote papers and gave presentations, they were graded by professors who had much more brains than we did; nominally, we were supposed to make what we wrote and said intelligible to our classmates, who had basically the same background as we did (although they might not have worked on that particular experiment, say). It wasn’t very often that we had to write up our own research so that college freshmen could understand it, let alone make educational material for the general public.

    (Myself, I did do some of that, but it was a secondary task at a summer job, so it doesn’t really count as part of a curriculum.)

    I think the point I’d like to make is that “science expositor” is a job which has its own set of prerequisite skills, and neither a workaday scientist nor a generalized journalist is likely to have a satisfactory subset of those skills, let alone the whole toolbox. There are plenty of unfair complaints to make — I don’t work in a “rat hole” — but I think that’s a fair statement.

  11. #11 Jesse
    December 22, 2008

    I’m going to chime in here as a working reporter.

    I think too often people do talk past each other; but I will agree with Greg Laden that a big part of the problem is too many bloggers I read spout off and have no idea what the average reporter actually does all day. They either say All The President’s Men a while back, kind of remember that Clark Kent and Lois Lane were reporters, or think about war correspondents or bad movies.

    (For those interested, I thought one of the more accurate representations of my job was in fact All The President’s Men, but that situation was so rare that it isn’t helpful. A better movie was Absence of Malice in this regard, though it’s a little overblown).

    Here’s the way it works: I get an idea for a science story. Sometimes it will be a press release, sometimes I’ll see something interesting (a chunk of the time it’s on Scienceblogs, in fact) or I might get one assigned.

    I’ll read the press release if there is one. I’ll do a quick lookup of the paper involved if there is one.

    But a lot of the time I won’t be in a position to carefully evaluate the paper. I have a physics background — terribly unusual in journalism, by the way — but if I end up with a biotechnology story I have to make sure I understand what i am talking about and i sure as hell won’t be able to decipher the Nature paper.

    A lot of the time I have to translate the press release because press release writers are often some poor intern working in the university PR office. Reading them and trying to decipher what they actually say is often a chore. (Don’t even get me started on computer science departments, which are full of people who can’t put a coherent sentence together — reading text/IM speak for me is like reading Old English verse).

    This isn’t always true — but it happens a lot.

    Then I have to call the relevant scientist if I can. I have to talk to the person and make sure that I understand what the point of the research is. Then I have to see if there’s something I can put in the story that connects it to people (always the best thing) or at least makes it comprehensible. I have to hope the guy is in his office, willing to talk, and can do so in a halfway coherent way. Some can, some can’t.

    And I don’t have a travel budget, so everything is likely to be on the phone/email.

    This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Reporters don’t get to be “the physics reporter” or “the biotech reporter” — it’s the same person. Can you honestly say that as a physicist you could give a coherent account of the latest research in proteins? Think you might miss something?

    Remember also that a blogger can write about whatever s/he wants, whenever. I have to come to work. I have two days, maybe, three if I am lucky. I have other stories I am working on — probably on a beat that is utterly unrelated.

    I have to assume that the people reading what I write know less than I do (which won’t be a lot to begin with).

    I have to fit in an allotted space. No more and no less. If you think it’s easy, you try giving a coherent account of evolutionary theory in 250 words or less, and relating it to the latest fossil discovery with the other 500 words of space, in a way that makes sense to a reader who isn’t a biologist or paleontologist and may have no science background at all.

    And with all of these constraints I have to write something I am satisfied with, that gets across something I might find interesting (if I can). We’re not all hacks — a lot of us like this stuff and find all sorts of things interesting about it. Those things aren’t always what readers might find interesting tho.

    Which is another skill a lot of us reporters have that bloggers, I have noticed, might or might not have. I love reading about research in many fields but if I am looking for story ideas I have to recognize what’s interesting to me might get a “So what?” from the general reader. Not everyone blogging can take that step back. It isn’t a skill you’re born with — at least none of the reporters I know had it fully formed when they started out.

    None of this means that bloggers are inferior, but there are a whole set of constraints we operate under and skills we reporters have that makes what we do different. And we’re not going to satisfy everyone. And we’re going to make mistakes that seem obvious to people in the field but aren’t to those outside of it.

    I recently did a piece for Scientific American. I thought the fact that a certain solar cell type material had these funky atomic bonds was really cool and interesting. It was central tot he way it worked. The editors didn’t think as much of that as they thought of another piece of the story. The bonds ended up on the cutting room floor.

    I love blogs. But they are not the same as reporting. I think one component of the discord between science bloggers and science reporters is that bloggers buy into the “lone genius” theory more than they like to admit. Reporters are The Establishment and therefore are wrong by definition. There’s also a bias to Anything New Must Be Better.

    But “new” and “better” aren’t the same thing. A good chunk of reporting isn’t very high tech. It’s just a curious person learning who to speak to. The accounts we write really are the first draft of history — they won’t satisfy people deep into the fields. But they aren’t supposed to.

    I don’t think blogging will go away too soon. I hope not, anyway. But I think it’s just different, juts as writing ad copy is different from a novel, or a novel different fro poetry.

  12. #12 Kurt
    December 22, 2008

    Jesse, thanks for that description of what the day-to-day work of science journalism is like. I have a question for you: What systemic changes could be made by news organizations in the way science journalism is done, in order to improve the quality of the final product? Because I don’t think that anyone here is doubting that journalists do the best they can with the constraints that they’re faced with. The problem is that it is just not good enough.

    A reasonable understanding of scientific issues by the general public is just too important given the impact that science policy decisions by the government will have on our future way of life. This understanding is not going to come from people busy with careers and raising families suddenly deciding to enroll in their local colleges and universities. It has got to either come from the mainstream media making changes to how they operate to improve the quality of their reporting, or from somewhere else.

    Blogging is simply filling in a gap that badly needed filling, in the dissemination of knowledge from experts to the general population. You mention that there isn’t a separate ‘physics reporter’ and ‘biotech reporter’, to which I can only ask, why the hell not? That’s not your fault, I realize, but it is definitely your organization’s fault. There should be separate reporters specializing in different scientific disciplines; the idea that one person can be a generalist and do an adequate job is ridiculous. And the job that gets done is far too often not adequate.

    Mainstream media are going to have to adapt to respond to changes brought about by technology. Instead of paying reporters to fight a losing battle, why shouldn’t the AP or other news organizations simply contract with bloggers to provide in-depth news articles in specialized areas? A science editor should have no trouble developing a relationship with a stable of bloggers, each of whom might be called upon to write an occasional article in their own area. (The idea of turning reporting into a piece-work industry may be unappealing on some levels, but shifts in our culture are going to force these changes whether we want them or not.)

  13. #13 Paul
    December 23, 2008

    Jesse, you hit the nail on the head there!

    Science bloggers and science journalists arguing it out is exactly like novelists and poets arguing over who is the better writer.

    You all write about science. There, all similarity ends.

  14. #14 Jesse
    December 23, 2008

    Kurt–

    First, a lot of science editors do use freelance stuff, There is nothing preventing any blogger from doing it. I’d love to see more of them do it and learn a little about reporting, which to my mind they don’t often do.

    Also, remember that media companies of whatever type– be it TV or print — are for-profit entities. CNN has a science correspondent, and Dr. Gupta. That’s about it. CNN has millions of dollars. The AP has a science guy. It has more technology guys. They don’t get paid much.

    There are several problems you are stating and not all of them begin with the media, per se.

    First, there’s simply a huge problem with education in science. Not the sciences as fields, but in how to do it and what it is. I call it “learning how to learn.”

    The source is underfunding public education, for starters. People complain all the time that we spend too much money on schools, but in terms of pay if I get a Master’s I can make twice a teacher’s salary doing a dozen other things — most of which are arguably of far less value to society. Ask yourself this: if greater pay attracts talent, why do we not pay starting teachers $100,000 per year, which is what an associate at a law firm (working crazy hours, it is true, but teachers do that too a lot of the time) gets with a BA and no experience? Have you ever met a rich teacher?

    This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems with teachers, lord knows, this is just the start of a discussion to say that the media is sort of the end product, rather than a cause.

    When people aren’t educated in the process of scientific thinking that means they don’t learn how to learn, and that means when they go to college there’s a tendency to specialize. In fact, I’d argue that the problem in colleges — increasingly necessary to get any job, I might add– is overspecialization. Especially in the sciences. I have met a lot of smart science guys. They can’t write clearly. They can’t spell. Drives me nuts. They further have little ability to understand people who aren’t like them. That is, there’s a tendency I see to look at folks outside of your field and assume they’re just too dumb to understand why it’s the most important thing in the world. (This also is the reason I have met a lot more right-wing engineers than in other fields, but that’s another story).

    In the humanities, you have people who are better at understanding others (I have found) but haven’t been trained in certain kinds of analytical thinking. Requiring philosophy would go a long way here, as well as logic (which in many European institutions are givens, by the way). It’s sort of the converse of the above problem.

    CP Snow’s two cultures meme was right about one thing — these two groups don’t talk to each other nearly enough.

    Second, there are a lot of assumptions about the way the media works and what it is supposed to do inherent in the way you asked the question. I had an old journalism teacher who had edited many people. His maxim:

    Assume makes an Ass out of u and me.

    If you see the media as having to help people by informing them, then you have to get the folks out there who know what they are talking about to talk. You can’t assume us reporters know where they are.

    How to solve all this? Well, first, require science of the humanities majors and make sure the science students can write. While I think we often chide humanities people for being unacquainted with the sciences (rightly so) I think we often give the science folks a pass. That’s because the science people who talk about it most self-select (they are usually interested in the humanities to some degree to begin with).

    At a more immediate immediate level, scientists have to learn that journalists aren’t writing peer-reviewed articles. If you are worried about a reporter — who may not have a science background — thinking there are ‘two sides’ just tell him/her there aren’t. When someone calls you up about a local dispute on evolution, you have to assume the guy doesn’t know anything about it and probably never gave it much thought before. After all, who does? I don’t spend my day thinking about it, I’m busy trying to get the coffee made and dishes done.

    With other fields, it just means understanding that what’s important to a news audience isn’t what’s important to you, not always, when the interviewer calls up.

    Show up at local zoning board meetings (if you are a scientist). I mean it. Do you realize how heavily covered the local zoning board meeting is at the local paper? Or the school board? You want to meet a reporter, that’s where to go.

    Bloggers: offer up your skills as freelancers. Learn that unlike in blogging, there are edits you must endure. There are conventions to writing you have to deal with. But the bonus is you get paid. Learn how to pitch stories. (That’s the toughest part I think). Don’t say “You people are MSM Evil and are a bunch of fools.” As an editor I will hang up.

    Sorry I ramble, there’s a lot of issues to touch on, and I haven’t given all of them nearly the treatment they deserve.

  15. #15 Stephen Curry
    December 23, 2008

    Nice post – well put (as Jennifer already pointed out). It struck me that Bora was so concerned at being provocative that he rather missed the target. In fact I think he missed both targets and presented a rather cariactured view of scientists and journalists…

  16. #16 eddie
    December 24, 2008

    It’s WAR I tell you!

    Really, you need to appreciate the level of insecurity and fear in the journalism profession presently. Old style print media is on it’s knees and they are grasping at straws as to how they will survive.

    They are presented with demands from their most influential advertisers; expressed through their editors; just as terrified as they are. They need to deliver audience to the advertisers and they don’t see many options as to how they can achieve this.

    One way they do this is by appealing to ‘lowest common denominator'; dumbing down, sensationalising, distortion. We were promised jetcpacks. But by journalists, not scientists.

    The problem with this approach is that the audience that this appeals to is not the one that the advertisers realy want (in terms of disposable income, education level, however you want to measure it), while the audience most attractive to advertisers as turned off and goes elsewhere. This leads to the present rise of alt media and blogging in particular and makes the journalists quake in even more terror than before.

    Many science journalists may not have read much technical work, if any. They have probably read Hawking or Dawkins. Many have read Asimov and in particular that part of Foundation that shows scientists as a powerful techno priesthood. It’s this cliche that scares them most. That’s their lawn we’re stepping on.

    You know the drill; fear leads to anger and anger leads to violence and so they strike out. Instead of recognising the intrinsic flaws in their earlier choice to dumb down, they try to devalue the alternatives. They claim that if we’re writing for specialists, but are not rigorous enough, if we’re writing for laypeople, we’re not accessible enough.

    What we are in fact doing is writing for everyone that is not being served adequately by journalisis. It really is that simple. We’re catering to folk who would happily fork out the cost of a paper paper and actually have the income to buy the advertisers’ wares, if the content wasn’t utter fucking shit.

  17. #17 Lilian Nattel
    December 26, 2008

    As an outsider to the debate, I don’t see any inherent conflict between blogging and journalism. I’m a writer, a novelist. That’s my profession & it’s how I make a living. When I blog, I’m not writing a novel and I’m not making a living! But I am writing in a different way, enjoying it, and sharing with whomever happens to read it what I think is interesting, beautiful, thought provoking, or important. I read science magazines and I read science and nature blogs–they are complementary. Right now, I’m sitting with my kids leaning against my knees, watching “Fingertips” (an art show). I’ve got my laptop and I can read blogs, feed my brain, and see something beautiful. When they’re in bed, I can pick up a magazine and stay with something longer and (hopefully!) more in-depth. Neither is a replacement for the other. It’s true that anybody can blog and there is a surfeit of blogs out there. My challenge is finding my way to the blogs I want to read. But then that is also true of the surfeit of novels published every year.

  18. #18 Lilian Nattel
    December 26, 2008

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t get the criticism of science blogs. The joy of blogging is that you don’t have to answer to anyone. You put it out there and anyone is free to read it or not. The only problem I see is that the internet is bloated and it’s a challenge for me, a newbie in the blog world, to find material. Too technical? How lucky we are to have that available to us. Not rigorous enough? With anything on the internet, you have to get a sense of the authoritativeness of sources. But that’s also true in print. When I’ve done historical research, I’ve never taken a single document at face value without corroboration.

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